The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1972/1976)

The Modern Lovers' self-titled debut, mostly recorded in 1972 but not released until 1976, stands as a unique piece of history, both ahead of its time and out of time, the primary document of a style frontman Jonathan Richman never tried to replicate over the course of his nearly half-century of work.

Boston-based Richman was a huge Velvet Underground fan, and initially sought to replicate their sound, with both raw, simple rockers and quiet ballads, delivered without polish or pretense.  But whereas the Velvets' Lou Reed sang of decadence and debauchery, Richman -- without irony or embarrassment -- sang about loving his parents, cherishing his girlfriend, and avoiding drugs.  But he tethered his innocent, throwback lyrics to a blazing proto-punk sound that made it all sound cool and hip, served by a band which included future members of the Talking Heads and the Cars.

"Roadrunner," the lead-off track, is the defining moment of this incarnation of the band, a classic two-chord rocker that takes the Velvets' "Sister Ray," and speeds it up into a joyful power pop track about driving around Boston with the AM radio blasting.  For the indie rock crowd, "Roadrunner" is an anthem as powerful and influential as "Johnny B. Goode," covered by everyone from the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett.  The song's rollicking vibe is replicated on the rougher-edged "She Cracked," one of several Richman odes about clean-living.  The other, the slower "I'm Straight," manages to put down drug culture in a way which still comes across as hip and non-pedantic ("These guys, if they're really so great/Tell me, why can't they at least take this place and take it straight?").

Elsewhere you've got the upbeat, Velvet-y "Someone I Care About," followed with a similar-themed ode to love in a sweet, slower package, the heartfelt "Girlfriend."  The edgiest the album gets is the delightful "Pablo Picasso," a "Waiting For My Man"-styled droning rocker about the artist, sort of, featuring the inimitable refrain, "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole... not like you."

Though produced on the fly by VU alumnus John Cale and several others, the album manages to sound surprisingly good, particularly on the harder rocking tracks, with future Talking Head Jerry Harrison beefing up Richman's jagged guitars with garage band keyboard fills.

Various reissues of the album tack on different bonus tracks, including contemporaneous demos and other songs from the early version of the band; there are also demo collections and live albums.  Otherwise, that's pretty much all you've got from the original Modern Lovers.  Richman carried on with new versions of the band (ultimately dropping the band name entirely), but quickly abandoned the raw VU-tinged sound of this album in exchange for mostly acoustic, chirpy, stripped down songs that ranged from folky to essentially children's music.  Some of it is great (albeit very different sonically), some less so, but all retains his whimsical innocence and joyous straight-arrow approach. 

Here's "Roadrunner":
...and "Pablo Picasso":
...and "Someone I Care About":