Rockin' and Romance from 1985 is my favorite Jonathan Richman album. That is not the same as saying I think it's his best (the critical consensus seems to be that the first Modern Lovers album is the best, and I won't argue with that). It's just that Rockin' and Romance is the album I've listened to the most over the years, and the one I have gotten the most enjoyment out of.
So why do I like this album so much? It's probably a combination of factors including the wonderful songs, the spirited performances, the production, as well as the point in my life when I first heard the album.
My first exposure to the album was in high school through my friend Pete, who picked up a used copy at the Annapolis Record and Tape Exchange. We both marveled at Jonathan's honesty and fearless Romanticism: here was a guy who could find beauty and mystery in a disposed of chewing gum wrapper, and wasn't the least bit embarrassed about his enthusiasm for a piece of trash. Rather, he seemed to take a perverse delight in celebrating the things the rest of the world would rather dispose of. It took me a couple years to find my own copy of the album, but when I ran across a still-sealed cut out I snatched it up as quickly as I could and held on to it tight, afraid someone else might spot my sacred treasure and buy it out from under me.
Andy Paley deserves a lot of credit for his production on this album. Jonathan's complaint about the production on Jonathan Sings! being sterile cannot be applied to this album. Quite the opposite. Some might call the recording lo-fi, but I don't think that's right either. Rather, Paley simply eschews modern audio recording technique in favor of a much more organic sound that goes a lot further toward capturing the essence of Jonathan's songs and the group's performances than multi-tracking ever possibly could have. The sound is live, real and tangible. Paley was no idiot savant in the studio--he could do slick and overproduced as well (or as badly) as anyone (consider Brian Wilson's first solo album for example). Fortunately, Richman and Paley had the wisdom not to record this album like that. Instead it sounds like the whole band set up in a small studio and recorded the largely acoustic material around a single stereo microphone. However they did it, it sounds fantastic, capturing all of Richman's charm and the enthusiasm of the performers. Paley also plays some mean toy piano on the album.
Despite the fact that this album has never officially been released on CD, it is available on CD. Sort of. Twin/Tone has made much of their catalog available in the form of custom made CDs that can be purchased through their website. You can order a custom CD of this album for $15 plus $5 shipping (and if you don't already own it you should). Unfortunately, you won't get any cover art, but don't let that stop you because I created some high quality CD art (zip file) that you can download and print out yourself.
Rockin' and Romance is a cult album by a cult artist. According to Twin/Tone's website the album sold 19,360 copies on LP and cassette combined (which is actually pretty good by 80s indie label standards). You can probably add about 20 custom made CDs to that total. Would I like to live in a world where you could buy Rockin' and Romance at the supermarket, and you had to special order a custom burned CD of Slippery When Wet? Yeah, I think I would. It would be a different and weirder world for sure, but you'd have a hard time convincing me it wouldn't also be a nicer one.
"The Beach" is a seasonally appropriate ode to, um, the beach. "Vincent Van Gogh" is Richman's second song about a great painter, this one much happier and more positive than "Pablo Picasso," (which is almost perverse considering the subject). Art historians might quibble with Richman's methodology, but his thesis ("he loved color and he let it show") is as rock solid as the beat. Perhaps my favorite song is the album's closer, "Now Is Better Than Before," a frank and touching song about how love can grow stronger over the years. It is both sentimental and completely honest at the same time (a difficult feat). It is almost more beautiful than this world deserves. But since we can't live in a world where Jonathan Richman is a multi-platinum artist and Bon Jovi has small cult following, at least we can be thankful we live in a world where an artist as talented and unique as Jonathan Richman can sustain a 30+ year career on the margins.
[Custom CD available from Twin/Tone]