Jonathan Richman,
Action Packed: The
Best of Jonathan Richman

(Rounder, 2002)

One of the more interesting things about following popular music for the last 40-plus years is the occasional Large Thing that falls right past my ears. The fun of writing for Rambles includes the opportunity to stumble across these missing Holy Grails, and so it is with me and Jonathan Richman.

Where have this guy and/or I been? In retrospect, I discover that he not only contributed songs for Something About Mary, but also is something of a plot device, but since that movie is another cultural artifact which has passed me by, my ignorance relied on the timely arrival of Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman for deliverance.

The boys and girls over at Rounder Records seem to feel that this collection is "essential rock 'n' roll," but I'm more than a little reluctant to try and limit what's going on here to such narrow constraints. In trying to come up with touchpoints which cross the Jonathan Richman Experience, I'm left with a few cultural cul-de-sacs, including the comedian Bill Hicks, and a recent cult film, Six String Samurai. Even then, there's something happening here, and what it is ain't exactly clear....

How to make my way through this set? Fortunately, the titles of many of these songs provide the same sort of subtle hints to their content that the last five minutes of a Rod Serling Twilight Zone used to supply. "Fender Stratocaster" turns out to be nothing less than a paean to that venerable axe, and "Reno" could have been commissioned by a Bizarro version of that Nevada town's Chamber of Commerce. "Cappucino Bar" gooses the Starbuck's crowd with a cattle prod set on stun, and "Monologue About Bermuda" is a stream-of-consciousness mosey which buries the old chestnut "Bang, Bang, Lulu" in the midst of a rap about the virtures of Caribbean mellow. There's a song "Una Fuerza Alla (A Higher Power)" from Richman's all-Spanish album, and the touching "You Must Ask the Heart," but my favorites on this disc would have to be the straightforward "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" and the delicate figurings of "Vampire Girl."

Whether it is obscure references to Camus or the cannibalization of "Louie, Louie" in "Parties in the U.S.A.," there's a world or two of discoveries to be made as you sail boldly into the Brave New World of Jonathan Richman.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002

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