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The Boston Phoenix Mr. Pop

Jonathan Richman's still the one

By Stephanie Zacharek

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  There are lots of ways to approach the idea of pop music: it can be a diversion, a means of distracting you from the real world, a snatch of something to hum along with on the car radio on the way to work in the morning. But perhaps the greatest thing about pop is how easily it can be integrated into everyday life -- it still amazes and surprises me that just looking into the closet and wondering what to wear can trigger the melody loop of "I Say a Little Prayer for You" in my head, or how on a misty spring day a mild depression can waft in on a few bars of "It Might As Well Be Spring." If you open yourself up to it, pop can serve as a backdrop (or a catalyst) for any old thing.

In a way, the whole career of Jonathan Richman -- including his new CD, I'm So Confused (Vapor) -- is a metaphor for the way pop can settle gently around us like a flurry of leaves or a dusting of snow. Richman, who plays a three-night stand at the Middle East this week, is a disarmingly direct singer and songwriter and always has been, since he emerged in the late '60s with his first band, the Modern Lovers. It doesn't matter that magazine articles across the land are now proclaiming the death of irony: Richman wouldn't know a quotation mark if it clocked him on the head. His songs -- mix-and-match jumble sales of '50s rock, Velvets-inspired punk, and acoustic-troubadour folk -- are funny, absurd, and always genuine. He can write and sing about any old thing without making it seem like a stunt or a novelty: about the way Wranglers fit him better than Levi's, for example, or about how the feeling of driving around in your car as a teenager on a summer night is likely to haunt you periodically as long as you live. The old slogan used by wedding and bar mitzvah bands-for-hire fits him perfectly: he really does make music for all occasions.

On I'm So Confused -- produced by Ric Ocasek, with Bad Brains bassist Daryl Jenifer and Richman's long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, who also appeared with him in last summer's There's Something About Mary -- Richman tries a bunch of new occasions on for size. One of his favorite subjects here is his own sheer, unadulterated jerkiness. He doesn't shy away from sending up his own pretensions, or anyone else's. In "Nineteen in Naples," he reminisces about his first European experience. "I went across the pond/And I found myself in the demi-monde," he sings with characteristic deadpan understatement. He recalls how seeing Italian guys playing poker in their underwear made a big impression on him, and how scared he was that Italian youths were going to steal his big wads of cash. "Well, I didn't like this and I didn't like that/I was such a little brat," he sings against a streamlined '50s guitar-rock riff that almost sounds as if it were meant to offset the fake-intellectual preening that's the subject of the song. And on the title track, he makes a plucked guitar sound like an exotic Asian string instrument, turning it into a backdrop for lyrics about the ridiculousness of men who use their confusion as an eternal excuse for never acting like adults. "I have to sigh now," he announces, and then we hear a precise, beautifully rehearsed huff of breath, as if he'd slipped into the skin of one of those guys who thinks of his angst as performance art.

But the loveliest songs on I'm So Confused are the ones that showcase Richman's hopelessly romantic crooning. On "When I Dance," he sings about being the center of attention on the dance floor and being completely unselfconscious about it. "They're all in my trance when I dance," he sings with a Roy Orbison-like quiver, against the twang of an eerie Western-sounding guitar. It's more like a campfire song than a roadhouse one: Richman's devised a new kind of cowboy, one who's not afraid to sway dreamily on the dance floor. On "The Night Is Still Young," he drives around town at 3 a.m., looking for a party he's been invited to. He's not sure he's got the address right, but he's feeling so lonely, he doesn't want to give up looking. He ends up missing most of it, showing up at 5 a.m., but no matter: "That's when the dreamy things happen," he explains.

Richman is a genuine oddball among pop artists, but he's also a completely modern folk singer, illuminating the ways the ghosts of our culture haunt us. His subjects are smaller than, say, the Titanic or the Rock Island Line, but they're not necessarily less significant. In "The Lonely Little Thrift Store," he sings about the place where all our forgotten, unwanted artifacts end up: "The record by 101 Strings, and other lonely little things." What's most important is not the objects themselves but what they represent -- little bits of our former selves, the stuff we leave behind on our way to somewhere else. Richman's music is populist in the best sense of the word, music for everyday people -- "designed for constant use and daily pleasure," to quote the tag in my favorite flannel bathrobe. His territory is the crossroads where pop and folk intersect. His motto might be, "A wop bop a loo-bop: this land was made for you and me."


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