I previously dedicated a whole week to the music of Jonathan Richman, but I neglected to feature anything from his most difficult album to find, It's Time For Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. The album was released in 1986 on Rough Trade in the UK and Upside Records in the US. It was available only for a short time before falling out-of-print, and it's never been reissued. It's something of lost JoJo classic.
The album is similar in many respects to my favorite Jonathan Richman record, 1985's Rockin' and Romance, although it is not in my opinion as consistently great. Producer Andy Paley once again creates an engaging, direct and unfussy sound (though not as self-consciously primitive as on Rockin' and Romance). Likewise, there is a similar nostalgic, doo-wop flavor to much of the music. One major difference is that backing singer Ellie Marshall is featured much less than on Jonathan's previous two albums. While her contributions are missed, they are compensated for by the presence of fellow Boston native Barrence Whitfield, who is prominently featured in the backing chorus. Replacing Marshall's folk-influenced voice with Whitfield's gives the album more of a rough rock and roll flavor. Additionally, Asa Brebner provides some of the toughest guitar work heard on a Jonathan Richman album since his original Modern Lovers days.
Despite all the things this album has going for it, a few of the songs don't quite live up to the standards set by the previous album: "Shirin & Farad" sounds like a less engaging re-write of "Abdul and Cleopatra," and "Ancient And Long Ago" aims for, but doesn't quite reach, the emotional majesty of "Now Is Better Than Before." Nevertheless, the stronger material ("It's You," "Let's Take A Trip," "Neon Sign" and others) would be highlights on any Jonathan Richman album.
"Double Chocolate Malted" is perhaps my all-time favorite Jonathan Richman song. Some people might consider constructing a song around three-chords and instructions on how to properly make a frozen desert treat a poor excuse for songwriting. Some people are idiots--this is one of the greatest songs ever written. I have tried to make a double chocolate malted to Jonathan's specifications, right down to the extra scoop of malt in a paper cup on the side. However, I have had absolutely no luck in locating Horlex brand malt. Any help in locating a supply would be greatly appreciated, as I suspect that is the key to whole enterprise.
"Corner Store" is Jonathan at his most Don Quixote-like, tilting against the windmill of corporatization and longing for the return of the old-fashioned corner store. When Richman first recorded this song in 1986, I had yet to hear the name "Wal-Mart," and the passing of time makes the song sound sadder to me than it once did. How many more corner stores have forever shut their doors since this song was recorded over twenty years ago?
Some might consider "Corner Store" (and in fact the entire album) little more than a pointless exercise in simple-minded, reactionary, nostalgia. But the song subtly taps into a deep sense of longing for community and honest connection between individuals that cannot be written off so easily. With a guitar riff that explicitly recalls Creedence's "Down On The Corner" and its doo-wop style chorus, the song suggests that in replacing Mom and Pop corner stores with malls and mega-marts we lost more than just comfortable places to shop, we also lost the important public spaces provided by small, independently-owned stores--the kind of spaces where Willy and the Poorboys could ply their trade, and where the joyful doo-wop that Richman pays homage to was born. It's a high price to pay--Richman suggests--for cheaper prices.
The author of a thoughtful review of It's Time For on Head Heritage passes along a second-hand story that suggests Jonathan Richman himself does not hold this album in very high regard. That's not entirely surprising considering Richman rarely--if ever--has a kind word to say about any of his own albums. But regardless of Richman's assessment of the music from this period in his career, as a fan I would love to see his three Rough Trade albums (Jonathan Sings!, Rockin' and Romance, and It's Time For) reissued in a deluxe box set with bonus tracks and liner notes written by Richman explaining why he really thinks this music is horrible, and he can't listen to it anymore, but if some people like it then, hey that's okay with him.