Jonathan Richman – I, Jonathan – Craft Recordings

by | Aug 24, 2020 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews, SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

Jonathan Richman – I, Jonathan – Rounder Records (1992)/Craft Recordings CR00283 (2020) stereo vinyl, 38:23 ****1/2:

(Jonathan Richman – guitar, bass, vocals;John Rinkor – bass, percussion – guitar, Jim Washburn – bass; John Girton – guitar; Josef Marc – guitar, drums, vocals; Ned “Trem” Claflin – tremolo guitar, vocals; Jason Wilkinson – drums, percussion; Andy Paley – drums; Brennan Totten – drums; Steve Nobles – percussion; Mike Buckmaster – percussion; Willie Robertson – percussion; Tom Nelson – vocals; Scot Woodland – vocals)

Jonathan Richman experienced his first musical inroad as the founding member of the protopunk group The Modern Lovers. The mixture of “lo-fi” garage band music was inspired by indie  bands like Velvet Underground. While Richman never garnered commercial success with The Modern Lovers, his whimsical songwriting and accessible singing saw a resurgence with members of his former band as a solo artist. With Rounder Records in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Richman connected with releases like Jonathan Richman (1989), Jonathan Goes Country (1990), Having A Party With Jonathan Richman (1991) and his most successful project, I, Jonathan (1992). His eclectic career perseveres to this day. 

Craft Recordings has released the first-ever vinyl of I Jonathan. The ten original compositions offer a glimpse into the wry observational contexts of this songwriter. The term “garage band” has deep roots in rock and roll, dating back decades. The album consists of ten concise songs that feel like they’re being performed by a group of friends. So it is no surprise that the opening track of Side A (“Parties In The U.S.A.”) is introduced with a repeat three-chord groove as Richman pays name-checking verbal homage to “Louie, Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe”. The straight-forward hook is steady and the history of partying is celebrated with a talking and singing delivery. Richman’s strumming guitar and vocals recall classic “house” songs, with a direct musical snippet of “Hang On Sloopy”. His nostalgia for 60’s streamlined acoustics is palpable. The low-key approach and good-natured reflections are accessible. “Tandem Jump” has a surf music vibe  (juxtaposed against sky diving) with a slightly harder edge from two electric guitars. The range of subject matter is woven into the festive arrangements. On “You Can’t Talk To The Dude” the scaled-back arrangement (hand-clapping, guitar, voice) is pleasantly off-beat as Richman offers empathy to a woman with a non-communicative boyfriend. The steady rhythm is infectious through most of the numbers.

Richman’s vocal style emulates Lou Reed (he is a huge fan). So “Velvet Underground” is his unabashed nod to the New York-based band. It begins with crisp 50’s guitar hooks. At the 1:14 mark, Richman incorporates elements of “Sister Ray” in a deeper Lou-Reed voice. He returns to the jaunty rock aesthetic with humorous asides about “guitars that sell for $29.99” and “the heat’s turned off, ‘cause you can’t pay the bills”. Perhaps the commercial standout from I Jonathan is “I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar”. With infectious r & b-laced riffs on guitar, the singer muses about party life (In the first bar, things were stop and stare, in this bar, things were laissez-faire”). He repeats the rhyming  inflections and the head-nodding tempo. It is relentlessly positive. Side B kicks off with “Rooming House On Venice Beach”. Richman integrates a new wave beatnik structure into his ambivalent reminiscence about the post-70’s L.A. scene. The “oo-wah” backup vocals are a nice touch. His narrative duality continues on “That Summer Feeling”. Richman looks back on the the evocative growing pains of youth, but intones that “it will haunt you one day in your life”. There is a gentle swaying dynamic with hushed chant that fits seamlessly with the melancholy. Returning to the world of Dickie Dale, “Grunion Run” is a hard-edged instrumental with vitality. “A Higher Power” is joyous and more direct. Richman gleefully sings about the cosmic mystery of romance. The finale, “Twilight In Boston” is a slower “talking” recollection of his life in Boston. There are some nimble guitar lines (Josef Marc) to frame the narration.

I Jonathan is an excellent representation of pop music sensibilities. The songs are well-crafted, listenable and simply put…fun! Craft Recordings has done an outstanding job in re-mastering this album to vinyl. Sparse instrumentation and centered vocals are warm, capturing the intimacy of a distinctive singer-songwriter. The overall mix is balanced and more expansive as you listen with stereo headphones.     

Side A: Parties In The U.S.A.; Tandem Jump; You Can’t Talk To The Dude; Velvet Underground; I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar
Side B: Rooming House On Venice Beach; That Summer Feeling; Grunion Run; A Higher Power; Twilight In Boston  

—Robbie Gerson 

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