As Jonathan Richman’s career has extended into its fourth decade, new albums from the singer-songwriter have grown increasingly ancillary. Even when the one-time Modern Lover was more prolific, he frequently reprised songs from previous records, fine-tuning them or singing in another language. Nowadays, new records seem almost incidental; Richman spends most of his time on the road performing his song and dance regardless of whether or not he’s got a new album to promote.
As such, when a new record does appear, it seems out of thin air. Such is the case with his latest, Ishkode! Ishkode! released on the tiny Cleveland-based Blue Arrow Records label. It’s his first in six years and his first for his new label. Working primarily with his nylon-stringed guitar and drummer Tommy Larkins’ minimal set-up doesn’t leave a lot of room for sonic experimentation, but Richman manages to differentiate this record from his past work with subtle touches. On the leadoff “Whoa! How Different We All Are,” he conjures a heavy beatific vibe that is emphasized by female backing vocals of, “Yeah, we are.” (Several contributors are listed on the back of the sleeve, but without designations and sometimes without last names.) The title track conjures a similar vibe only broken by an electric guitar solo, which Richman may or may not have played (again lack of detailed credits).
Of course, there are also many of Richman’s signature affectations: his heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism, his use of English and Romance languages, and his wide-eyed point of view. Indeed, “But Then Ego Went Away” is as it sounds and is emblematic of Jonathan’s longtime M.O. As such, Richman never drifts too far from his comfort zone. The combination of new and familiar proves effective, and regardless of how these songs work their way into his live set, they fall together unassumingly as another charming chapter in Richman’s overflowing repertoire.