Rock 'n' Roll with the Modern Lovers

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers

(CD - Omnivore #OVCD 488)

Review by Fred Thomas

After founding the Modern Lovers in the early '70s as an angsty, Velvet Underground-inspired proto-punk outfit, Jonathan Richman drastically softened his approach with the second iteration of the band. The Boston-bred singer/songwriter turned down the volume and embraced themes of innocence and joy on 1976 album Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and he expanded this new approach on 1977's Rock 'n' Roll with the Modern Lovers by exploring traditional folk sounds and instrumentals alongside his playground-ready vision of acoustic rock & roll. Minimal instrumentation of upright bass, acoustic guitar, Richman's imperfect but always emphatic voice, and a drum kit that sounds like cardboard boxes makes up most of the songs, and the raw production makes the album feel like the band is casually rehearsing without knowing a microphone or two are active in the room. Some songs are childish and sweet (the cutesy singsong melodies of "Ice Cream Man" or the silly "Rockin' Rockin' Leprechauns") and some are slight adaptations of outright nursery rhymes ("The Wheels on the Bus.") The reverent wonderment that often surfaces in Richman's songwriting comes to the forefront on songs like "Summer Morning" and the dreamy thoughtfulness of "Fly Into the Mystery." Several instrumental tracks break from the toned-down rock & roll approach to sprinkle in generalized takes on the traditional folk sounds of various international cultures, and the record even produced a minor European hit with one of these, "Egyptian Reggae." The lo-fi sound quality and blissfully naive character of Rock 'n' Roll with the Modern Lovers was too much for some listeners when the album came out, and will likely remain off-putting for a percentage of anyone taking these sounds in for the first time. However, it's exactly that unrepentant sweetness, and a willingness to be ridiculously goofy one moment and nakedly tender the next, that will charm those who can stomach the unvarnished purity Richman was just beginning to tap into here.

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