Short Reviews

Jonathan Richman, Rick Nelson, Oscar Brown Jr.

Jonathan Richman
Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love
Vapor Records

Jonathan Richman clearly enjoys performing live more than he does making records. He often needs the stimulation and immediate feedback of an audience to really inspire him to reach for the transcendent moments he is capable of capturing. He’s said that he dislikes the production and even, in some cases, the songs on some of his old records. But an artist is not always the best judge of his own work, as Richman has made some incredible records in his 33-odd years of recording. Part of the fun of following Jonathan’s career is watching his viewpoints evolve over time and seeing how these changes are reflected in his opinions and interpretations of his own rich back catalog.

More recently he seems to have regained a fondness for some of the material from the belatedly released debut of the original incarnation of the Modern Lovers. He featured three songs from that album his last time through Austin, though in radically different versions. And if you’ve seen him live in the last two years, you’ve also heard him develop a good number of the tunes on this latest release, in particular the album’s two strongest songs, “My Baby Love Love Loves Me” and “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It.”

The production of Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love is minimal, staying for the most part with the core live set-up of Jonathan on vocals and guitar and Tommy on drums. The album is all the better for it, possessing a warm and natural sound. And the small production touches, when they do appear — the distant piano on “Salvador Dali,” the flute on “Behold the Lilies of the Field” and especially the trumpet interlude on “My Baby Love Love Loves Me” — really do add to the songs in a subtle but powerful way.

Also, as has become tradition, an older song is revisited, in this case “Vincent Van Gogh.” And while not as definitive as the original version on the sadly out of print Rockin’ and Romance, it’s still welcome for the mysterious-sounding guitar break and updated final verse. Elsewhere on this album, Jonathan continues to explore his fascination with foreign tongues, with songs in Italian, Spanish and French. But unlike past albums where these numbers were often lumped together or stuck at the end of the album, this time the songs feel fully integrated into the fabric of the album as a whole.

The only real weak spot is Jonathan’s first foray into political protest songwriting, “Abu Jamal.” His jumping on the tired bandwagon of this political prisoner of the stars seems almost offensively faddish and predictable. Surely there are others on death row, denied due process and possibly wrongly accused, that could benefit from this type of exposure. The song rings hollow and insincere, with its spurious assertion that it is his “proud voice” which renders the charges senseless and its exhortation to join Susan Sarandon and Harry Belafonte in Jamal’s cause. But this one misstep can’t sink an album with so many other genuinely wonderful moments, not the least of which is the penultimate track “Dream of the Sea,” in which Jonathan touchingly contemplates a dream of his own passing. Here’s hoping that day is still a long way away.

Rick Nelson
Rick’s Rarities 1964-1974
Ace Records

Perennially underrated in his own time, the last 15 years of reissues and box sets have been good to Rick Nelson, displaying the immense wealth, strength and variety of the music he recorded before his untimely death in 1985. This new collection by Ace, featuring rare and unreleased sides and demos covering the years 1964 through 1974, goes even further in upping the ante of his growing reputation as a formidable stylist in early rock ’n’ roll, pop and country rock. Though the presence of hot-shit guitarist James Burton, featured on the majority of tracks here, often offers the initial excitement in Rick’s recordings, it’s Nelson’s own gracefully effortless singing style that eventually pulls the listener into the material. His straightforwardly melodic vocal delivery may at first sound too laid back or lacking in affect. It gradually reveals subtle shadings of wistfulness and melancholy that, like Chet Baker, endears him to the listener with its sense of nuance, depth and vulnerability.

The material featured here runs the gamut from the early, innocent pop of “I’ve Been Looking” and “Your Kind of Loving” to the acoustic folk of “Freedom and Liberty,” to early (1966) excursions in country such as “Peddler Man” and “Outside Looking In,” and finally the later full-blown West Coast country rock of “California Free.” The highlights are really too many to mention, though I must single out the interplay between the vocal and restrained strings on “I Need You.” All told, there is not a bum cut here. The copious and informative liner notes in the accompanying booklet are simply the icing on the cake.

Oscar Brown Jr.
Kicks! The Best of Oscar Brown Jr.
Ace Records

If in some alternate world there existed a perfect radio station whose format consisted of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Slim Gaillard, King Pleasure, Nina Simone and the scores for films like I Want to Live and The Connection, all mixed with liberal doses of the humor of Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, then Oscar Brown Jr. would fit right in. Unfortunately, in the early ’60s, when Brown cut the four records from which this compilation was culled, he did not find himself in that enviable alternate world. These great records fell somewhere in no man’s land, caught between too many styles to gain the popularity he deserved. He was too post-’50s hip to fit into the earlier, more clean-cut jazz/pop style, but too early to benefit from the emergence of soul music or the marketability of a cross fertilization of styles of Black music. Brown’s completely unique synthesis of hipster blues humor mixed with a strong jazz vocal style and crisp, swinging pop/jazz arrangements (courtesy of Quincy Jones, among others), still sounds very hip and knowing today. It’s not too late to create that alternate world, at least in your living room.