JONATHAN RICHMAN – Surrender to Jonathan! (Vapor ’96): The first half of this album is everything Richman’s silly solo career is supposed to be—loose, tuneful, rock & rollin’, cutesy if not actually funny. He keeps asking “French style, French style / What is it?” while managing to never ask qu’est-ce que c’est? or say it has that certain je ne sais quoi. On “That Little Sleeper Car” he tries to convince that his POS set of wheels is a real racer and not the junker deathtrap his friends refuse to ride in. And it’s pretty remarkable that someone as seemingly immature as Richman manages to restrain himself from making jokes no crasser than stressing the ‘lez’ in ‘laisse faire’ on “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” (an electrified redo of a song that appeared on I, Jonathan) instead just relaying the simple story that the bar he started the night in was pretty dull, and that the lesbian bar was really hoppin’—that is, the humor arises from the ridiculous fish-out-of-water image of Richman unintentionally humiliating himself by dancing the way he does in front of an audience he misinterprets as thinking he’s a hoot and not a boob.
But after “To Hide a Little Thought” (another redo) it nosedives into filler, leading off with a whatever instrumental and (another) unnecessary redo of “When She Kisses Me.” Then there’s the ultra-irritating “Rock ‘n’ Roll Drummer Straight from the Hospy-Tel” and strangely confessional “My Little Girl’s Got a Full Time Daddy Now.” At least it ends with “Floatin’,” which has a fun riff even if the chorus is lackluster. So it’s fortunate that this isn’t another lo-fi effort of just Jonathan and the guitar; there are blurts of horns and an ever-present Hammond organ whirring in little loops to pick up the chorus when it can’t get going. The album is so far removed from the so-straight-I’m-hip posture of The Modern Lovers and so unrelentingly goofball that these songs are good for stupid pleasure and nothing more. I mean, there’s some truth to what he says when he proclaims “to win in love you must surrender,” but it’s hard taking seriously wisdom nuggets from a guy who sings about affairs that leave him feeling as guilty and paranoid as a haunted Poe protagonist. He’s best when he’s bullshitting around, and there’s enough here to satisfy me, even if a handful of songs are remakes from previous albums. But you? I’m not so sure about you. A MINUS