The Past Presents is typically where I take a fresh look at an older album, either because it’s regarded as a classic album and I’d like to see if it still holds up, or because it’s an album I feel is special and it never really got the love it deserves. For me, this column was always about looking at the records that many people feel are essential to every record collection. Moving forward, The Past Presents will still bring you these looks back at some great older records, but in and around those reviews, I’ll be writing about my own experiences with some records that are widely loved but I’ve just never had the time to hear. Oftentimes I’ll read about albums that have been on best-of lists for decades or my friends will tell me how great their favorite records are. Some of these I just have not had the time to hear beyond what a friend has played for me or what’s been curated by commercial radio. Sometimes I want to know if a Steely Dan album is really as bad as the singles I’ve heard. To make an effort to fill in some of these gaps for myself, I’ll be hitting record stores looking for albums I’ve heard about but have never listened to, then writing about my impressions. I’ve made a few rules for myself: I have to listen to the album start to finish three times before I write anything, I cannot research the album or the band in any way prior to listening, I can’t read re-issue liner notes, etc. This has to try and replicate a clean, unbiased first listen as much as possible.
To begin this new experiment I’ve chosen The Modern Lovers self-titled debut.
I’m listening to what appears to be a mid-80’s CD issue of the album and it looks like there may be a few tracks that were not on the original release. For those of you who love this album, don’t hate me for not having this in its original form. Going into my first listen, all I really knew about the album was that it was recorded in the 70’s and that Jonathan Richman was in the band. Admittedly, I’ve also never listened to Jonathan Richman, so it didn’t really mean too much to me. While checking out the front cover, two things struck me. First, I had no idea that Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads and David Robinson from The Cars was in this band. Second, I really hate the album cover.
After three listens I have to say that this record is not at all what I expected. I was imagining it would sound like a cross between the New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople. Instead, Jonathan Richman proves to be a charismatic presence; a punk hybrid of Lou Reed and Elvis Costello. The melodic jangle of the guitars comes across as something that would be comfortable on a great lo-fi album from 20 years ago. But, this being a product of the 70’s, that jangle is very polished and ready for a big stage. A few songs, like “I’m Straight” and “Dignified and Old,” sound like Richman was just going through the motions. On the other side of the coin, “She Cracked”, “Someone I Care About” and “Roadrunner” are great. “Girlfriend” is charming and wonderful, like a song being sung by the good-natured drunk guy who props up the end of the bar. In another universe where Syd Barret’s life had taken a different turn, I think his music may have sounded a lot like the Modern Lovers. These songs are quirky, often bizarre, but always catchy and appealing.
I can understand why people have recommended the album so often. Richman is an intriguing vocalist and the rest of the band is really well put together. They’re tight, polished, and powerful, making the album sound like a band effort rather than a Jonathan Richman album. Is this one going to make my list of best all-time albums? Probably not, but I think it is a really good album that will appeal to anybody who likes a catchy song and doesn’t mind a band that flirts with the wilder side of their art.