'Having a Party With; Jonathan Richman'; Jonathan Richman; Rounder Records. A smattering of recent releases gives a taste of styles ranging from blues, folk, musical theater, classical, rap, and rock. The writers share 11 compact discs they find noteworthy.
Jonathan Richman's place in rock-and-roll is the back-porch hootenanny.His voice is blunt and clumsy. His lyrics are silly if adroit. His guitar is burdened with bass-end twang. His band is likely to be whomever is around and whatever instruments are handy. But this is what makes him one of the most intriguing fringe artists in the industry. Not long after Richman broke through in the late 1970s - some accounts say Lou Reed discovered him, although Reed denies it - he became disenchanted with the mainstream. After a few singles, he shrugged off a major-label recording contract and headed for calculated obscurity. Richman seems to strive for - and thrive on - the sound of amateur spontaneity. As he described it in one song a few years ago, "That cheap guitar, man it's sounding bitter/That saxophone sounds like the cat dragged it in/ But I want it in my life/ This kind of music is the kind I like." Richman's lyrics are filled with romance for the simple and nostalgic. On previous albums he has found passion in the colors in Van Gogh paintings and neon signs and faded chewing-gum wrappers. He has pined for the old corner store overtaken by the modern mall. In a song called "Not Yet Three" he tries to see the sunset through the eyes of a restless two-year-old; in another he sings about refusing to let the neighbors run his life. Whether he is singing about baseball great Walter Johnson or Cleopatra or "nature's mosquito," the plucky rawness of Richman's guitar punctuates the innocence of his images. Richman does not dig as deep on his new album as he did on previous albums with his former band the Modern Lovers. He is every bit as playful, though, in "The Girl Stands Up to Me Now" and "When I Say Wife," but he lacks some of his old social and philosophical bite. Even so, as soon as the disc starts spinning and the strings start twanging, Richman delivers enough energy and wit to stop a roomful of conversation.