Friday, August 26, 2011

Jim Croce - Bad, Bad Leroy Brown & Other Favorites

When I was eight years old, my dad was accepted into a graduate study program at the University of Wisconsin, so that summer our family moved from Norfolk, Virginia to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a small town just outside of the state capital and university locale, Madison. Being a military family, we had already moved a couple of times before when I was younger, but this move was really the first one I was fully aware of. At that point, everything within the scope of my young awareness had been formed while I lived in Norfolk, and now that place was no longer to be my base. It was sad leaving behind friends like Ricky, Craig & Paul, and Warren & Wendell - kids who had lived in that neighborhood just as long as I had. It seemed that they were not only the best friends I ever had, but the best friends I'd EVER have in life - that's the sort of stuff you think about when you're eight. But even with all of that, I was still excited about the move. It was going to be a change, an adventure, a chance to see a new place and meet new people. I was looking forward to getting to Wisconsin and seeing what it had to offer.

And what it had to offer was plenty. Being fully immersed in the rural Midwestern experience was quite a change to a little boy who was used to "city" living (Norfolk wasn't a huge city, but it WAS an urban area). But for the most part, I found life in Wisconsin to be great, and in many ways idyllic; almost a living, breathing stereotype of what life for children was supposed to be like back then. Our new home was on the edge of the neighborhood, with a huge cornfield immediately beyond our backyard. In summer, the six-foot stalks would stretch behind us as far as the eye could see, and my new friends (the place was full of kids) and I would play hide-and-seek amongst them all day (never going too far inside, of course - the LAST thing you wanted to do was get lost in a big cornfield). My first winter there was the first time I'd ever seen snow piled so high - seven/eight foot drifts, a welcome sight to a little boy's eyes (the all-too-true 'joke' at the time was that you built a snowfort there by getting a shovel and digging straight down . . . ). Sun Prairie (BTW - what a great name for a Midwest town!) was the sort of place where the arrival of spring was heralded by boys and girls getting their marbles out of storage and having intense playground marble competitions; a place of spelling bee champs (the 1974 state champ came from my school), annual corn festivals, variety stores, tetherball and four-square, free milk & peanut butter sandwiches in the lunch room, and fresh air and good churchgoing people (we attended every Sunday, and practically every family in our neighborhood was there; I was even an alter boy for a time). It was sort of geeky, and completely "small town" . . . but nice. And I loved it.

But with all of the carefree, sun-drenched atmosphere of the place, there was a sort of dark undercurrent running below the surface appearances of country good times and happy, sunny days. Not a Blue Velvet-ish version of crime and menace, mind you, but a new feeling that became a significant part of my awareness just the same. It was while I was in Sun Prairie that I first became fully aware of the concept of mortality.

The first time I can recall a death even remotely touching my life occurred during fourth grade, my first year of school in Sun Prairie. We arrived back in school after the Christmas break to find that one of our classmates, a girl who lived on a farm just outside of town, was absent from class. Our teacher told us the reason why she was missing - her younger brother, a second-grader at our school, had been killed in a farm accident just after the holiday. I knew the boy (it was a small school, so pretty much every kid from kindergarten through 6th grade was acquainted with one another), but not that well. Still, it was shocking to know of someone who had actually died, who no one would ever see again on Earth. I remember when the girl came back to class a week or so later, and seeing her sad, pale face. I felt horribly sorry for her, but of course I wasn't old enough to know the right words to say or the right things to do. Before her return, our teacher had advised us to treat her as we did before the tragedy. But that was a difficult task - the death was always there, sort of like a grey mist floating all around us.

Later that same winter, the skeletal hand appeared once again. A man who lived in the circle across the street from our house, the father of two boys my brother and I played with quite a bit, was killed in a car accident on a snowy Madison highway. This time, the death felt a little closer - I knew this man and his family very well, a lot better than that girl in my class and her brother. They had his funeral at our church; my siblings and I didn't go, but my parents did. A couple of weeks later, compounding the tragedy for me, those two little boys moved away from Sun Prairie with their widowed mother, and we never saw or heard from them again.

Even with the poppy, lightweight stuff on the radio in that era (Three Dog Night, Seals & Crofts and Chicago were huge in those years), the music of the time also seemed be taking on a darker tone. The big hit of my first summer in Sun Prairie was Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)". I used to think this song was profoundly sad; the part near the end, when the singer sings about his father and mother dying, always made the 8-year-old me cry. When Casey Kasem would play this song on American Top 40 on Sunday nights back then, I would run out of the room, so my parents wouldn't see me break down. Another monster maudlin hit from around that time was Terry Jacks' "Seasons In The Sun", a similarly depressing tearjerker about someone kicking the bucket. Despite the morbidity of this song, for some reason it was hugely popular with kids; I recall at our school spring pageant later that year, it was one of the songs sung by the 6th grade class. I could give you many more examples - Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"; Don McLean's "American Pie" (which I understood early on was about the death of Buddy Holly, although I didn't hear his name mentioned in the song) . . . shoot, even Loudon Wainwright's "Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road" - behind the bright, sunshiny appearance of my life in Sun Prairie, death seemed to be infusing everything around me.

So when Jim Croce died in September 1973, I was very much aware of it; it was really the first "celebrity death" story that I followed closely.

Jim Croce was born in South Philly in 1943. After his graduation from Villinova in 1965, he busked around the Philadelphia area for several years, first with his wife Ingrid as a duo, and later as a solo act. The couple parlayed their hard-earned local recognition into a one-off deal with Capitol Records, releasing Jim and Ingrid Croce in 1969, and over that year traveling hundreds of thousands of miles across the U.S. and Canada in support of the album. But both the tour and the record were not as successful as the label or the Croces wished, and by 1970 the couple was back in Pennsylvania. Jim took odd jobs in construction and trucking to pay the bills, and it seemed that his hopes of becoming a successful musician were dead.

However, later that year, an old college friend introduced Jim to a guy named Maury Muehleisen, a talented pianist/guitarist from New Jersey whose first album, Gingerbreadd, was about to be released on Capitol. Maury was looking for a backup guitarist for some scheduled gigs in the Philadelphia area, and Croce jumped at the chance. The Gingerbreadd concerts weren't all that successful, but Croce and Muehleisen instantly bonded, and together started creating a sound that quickly caught the attention of their record producers. Although Jim initially backed Maury, eventually the dynamic was reversed, with Croce's extensive catalogue of songs (many written in off hours from his truck driving work) and outgoing personality making him the front man and driving force of the partnership.

In 1972, Croce and his partner signed a three-record deal with ABC Records. His first album, You Don't Mess Around With Jim, was released that April and met with gradual but widespread success, spawning two US Top 20 hits ("You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)"). Croce and Muehleisen immediately embarked on months of nearly nonstop touring all over the U.S. and Canada.

The buzz around and about Jim Croce began slowly and steadily growing - a whirlwind of traveling, television appearances and concerts in front of crowds of more than 10,000 people. Recording sessions were sandwiched in between tour dates; in late 1972 the pair recorded the follow-up album, Life And Times. The lead single, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown", was released in April 1973 and became Croce's biggest hit, reaching #1 by the end of that spring and remaining on the charts all summer. The album, released a couple of months later, was as successful as its predecessor, making it into the US Top Ten by the end of August.

Croce's songs were very popular with children back then; the words and harmonies were simple enough for kids to get the gist of them. And of course they were all over the radio. "Leroy Brown" was a special favorite that summer; I can once recall walking back home from the nearby school playground, arm-in-arm in a line with my friends, singing "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" at the top of our lungs, and thinking it was the greatest song in the world.

Meanwhile, the pressures of being a suddenly-popular musician began mounting for Jim Croce. With a Number One song on the charts, the tour schedule became even more hectic. ABC Records had scheduled studio time for Croce and Muehleisen at the Hit Factory in New York City that summer to record the third album (I Got A Name) under his current contract. The label was anticipating even greater success with this upcoming release, and was preparing a new contract far better for Croce than his initial three-album deal. The future looked pretty rosy from Jim as he recorded his final song for the new album on September 14th, then headed out on the road again with Muehleisen for a scheduled tour of the South and Southwest . . . a tour they never completed.

The plane crash in Natchitoches, Louiaiana that killed Croce and Muehleisen, along with two other people, was front-page news across the country; I recall picking up the local Star Countryman newspaper on the evening of September 21st and being so shocked and stunned by the news that I immediately burst into tears. For someone who had made such an impact in the music world in so short a time, to be suddenly and cruelly taken away - that seemed so unfair to me. I was too young to have lived through or to recall the plane crashes of Buddy Holly or Otis Redding, which occurred under similar circumstances and at similar points in their careers. But with Croce's death, I began to understand the profound loss behind those earlier tragedies.

I guess the thing I began to feel from these three recent events in my life was that death appeared to be random and arbitrary. That no matter how young or old you were, how good or loved you were, or how much you had accomplished or had yet to accomplish in your life, the Grim Reaper didn't care. This was an absolutely chilling concept to an eight-year-old boy, and it took a long time for me to come to grips with it, and work out in my own mind what life and living is all about. I still haven't got it completely worked out yet . . . but who amongst us has?

I hate to play upon this "loss of innocence" thing too heavily . . . but really, when I look back on it, Sun Prairie was the last chance I had to really be a kid, before moving again (after two years in Wisconsin, we moved to Maryland) and facing all of the pressures involved with moving out of childhood, leaving elementary school, and taking more and more responsibility for my life. And a significant part of that change can be traced back to that cool autumn evening, when I picked up the paper and saw that something and someone I enjoyed no longer existed.

I got this attached compilation, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown & Other Favorites, from my younger sister a few years ago. Frankly, it's really not a very good overview of Jim Croce's brief career - it's missing some significant hits, including "I Got A Name" (his first posthumous hit) and "You Don't Mess Around With Jim". I've included both songs in separate files here along with the album, released in 1994 by CEMA Special Markets. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

New Order - Fine Time 12"

"Fine Time" was the lead single and (in my opinion) best song on what I consider to be New Order's last decent album, 1989's Technique. The album came out shortly after I returned from six months in Europe, where I became a big fan of acid house music. I was stunned and happily surprised when I first heard Technique and found that New Order had heavily coopted that sound. What I learned much later (partly through Michael
Winterbottom's 2002 film 24 Hour Party People - a great movie about the Factory Records/Manchester scene, by the way) was that soon after recording 1986's Brotherhood, the band went on vacation to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, off the coast of Spain, a renowned European club and party zone. While there, they first came in contact with the rising acid house sound and with Balearic beat, a style of electronic dance music pioneered on the islands. The band fully immersed themselves into the music of Ibiza, and came away from their trip committed fans of that sound. They were determined to have their next album reflect this new musical sensibility.

New Order took a longer-that-usual amount of time to record Technique - almost three years, much to their label's chagrin. By the mid-80s, Factory Records was bleeding money all over the place, but especially through the Hacienda, the Manchester nightclub and music venue jointly financed and built by Factory and New Order. Although popular, the majority of the Hacienda's patrons preferred taking ecstacy and other drugs to buying drinks at the bar. This, coupled with generally low admission prices, led to spiraling debts at the club. These debts were usually covered through revenues from New Order's record sales. By 1987, the Hacienda was costing Factory (or more specifically, New Order) nearly a quarter million dollars a year. So a quick turnaround on a new New Order record was necessary not just for the band, but more importantly for the label in keeping its various enterprises afloat. But New Order would not be rushed, and Factory was in no position to force the issue (especially since the band, not the label, owned all of their music). So all Factory could do was sit and stew as New Order flew back and forth to Ibiza month after month, tinkering with their new sound.

The long wait was justified when Technique was released in January 1989 and became an immediate hit, the band's first UK #1 album and their first non-compilation disc to go gold in the US (the Substance compilation went platinum in 1987), reaching #32 on the US album charts. Two album singles, "Fine Time" and "Round and Round", made the UK Top Twenty, but had even greater success in America, with both songs reaching the top five on the national dance and modern rock charts.

Being a long-time New Order fan, I bought Technique on cassette practically the instant it came out, and played it to death while driving around Virginia that winter. I especially liked "Fine Time", so much so that when I spotted a 12" disc of remixes available at the George Washington University branch of Tower Records that March, I immediately snapped it up. It's such a well-constructed song, that it can withstand the manipulation of several different mixes and still sound fresh and exciting each time.

So here you are, burned off of my still-mint condition vinyl copy - New Order's Fine Time 12", released by Factory Records in 1988 and distributed in the U.S. by Quincy Jones' Qwest Records (BTW - out of the 37(!) different versions of this record available internationally, this one is one of the few that have all five remixes available, along with the b-side "Don't Do It"). I think the quality of this burn is exceptionally good - if you feel otherwise, let me know and I'll rescorch it. Either way, let me know what you think:  

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Fall - Kimble EP

Another part of my ongoing fetish to collect anything and everything related to my favorite band, The Fall . . . I picked this one up in the spring of 1993, the last music purchase I made in the US before leaving for New Zealand a week later. I lived in a hotel for my first few weeks in Christchurch, waiting for my household goods to arrive by slow boat from Baltimore. The only goods I brought with me were a bunch of clothes, my CD player with a little set of attachable speakers, and a pile of CDs, including this one - which I played to death during that time.

The four songs on this disc - the title cut (a great cover of a Lee "Scratch" Perry reggae classic); "Gut Of The Quantifier"; "Spoilt Victorian Child" and "Words of Expectation" - were all taken from a live 1992 John Peel session. As such, they have all been included on other Fall anthologies and compilations, including and especially The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004 box set from 2005. But if you don't feel like shelling out the big bucks for that set and running through six discs to find these tunes, here they are, all together in one place.

(And that's not to disparage the Complete Peel Sessions set - it's a simply superb compilation, and a must-have for any diehard Fall fan.)

So, for your listening pleasure - the Kimble EP, released by Strange Fruit Records in 1993. Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Hetch Hetchy - Make Djibouti EP

Oh-OK is one of the great forgotten bands from the early days of the Athens, Georgia music explosion, the movement that brought the B-52s and R.E.M. onto the world stage. The band formed in the spring of 1981, and originally consisted of David Pierce on drums, Linda Hopper on vocals and Lynda Stipe on bass. If you're thinking "Stipe, Stipe - now WHERE have I heard that name?" - the answer is "yes"; Lynda was/is Michael Stipe's younger sister.

Oh-OK's star rose and fell very quickly. Within two years of forming, the group had toured with Pylon, released an EP and full album, added (and lost) new members (including a pre-solo Matthew Sweet) and broke up by the end of 1983. At that point, the band members scattered. I got into Oh-OK long after their breakup, when I lived in Athens during during the late 1980s. They, like Pylon, were (and still are) revered in that town, sort of as the pioneers who fell off the trail. I was interested enough to track down bits and pieces of their music while I was there, and the little I heard was enough to make me a fan.

But unlike Pylon, who remained in Athens after their heyday and were still somewhat semi-visible, a lot of ex-Oh-OK members disappeared for a time - except for Matthew Sweet, of course. Linda Hopper quickly moved on to Holiday, which released an obscure EP in 1987, then formed the more successful Magnapop, which is still performing and putting out records (the latest being 2005's Mouthfeel). Lynda Stipe fell off the musical radar for a couple of years. But she resurfaced in the late 1980s fronting a new band, Hetch Hetchy, and sporting a new name, Lynda K. Limner. The band's first release was the Make Djibouti EP, produced by Lynda's brother (hmm - I guess there ARE benefits to having a sibling in R.E.M.) and put out by Texas Hotel Records in 1988.

I honestly don't know what to make of this disc. I purchased it because of the fond memories I had of Oh-OK, and seeing Michael's name in the credits didn't hurt either. But its sound is far different from the simple, almost-childlike melodies of Lynda's previous band (or anything related to R.E.M., for that matter). The six songs on this EP are heavy - and I mean HEAVY; even what could be considered to be the lighter, poppier attempts on this disc (such as "Present" and "Hard On Lynda") just feel wrong, dragged down by the weight of too much instrumentation. And the slower ones (like "Retarded Camel" and "Sad Song") are even more leaden, with plodding rhythms supported by a thudding bass drum. in addition, it sounds as though Hetch Hetchy hired the old keyboard player from Berlin to sit in on this session - every song seems to contain some version of that weird "doo-doo wah-wah" synthesizer riff from "The Metro" - which is NOT a good thing, especially in 1988.

All in all, the Make Djibouti EP was not a promising start for Hetch Hetchy. As for who to blame for the weakness of their debut, well . . . far be it from me to point fingers, especially more than twenty years down the road. I'll hold my peace. But I
will note that prior to recording their first full album, 1990's Swollen, Lynda got rid of most of the original band, and instead of using her brother again, enlisted the production services of former Hugo Largo bassist Tim Sommer. The resulting album was a lot better than the EP, but that didn't save the band - Hetch Hetchy broke up in 1991. Since then, Lynda has been part of a few obscure bands, like Flash To Bang Time, and is still involved in the Athens arts scene.

I guess in hindsight, I should be writing about and posting Hetch Hetchy's more superior Swollen, rather than gassing about this thing. Screw it - I'm almost done writing this, and don't feel like starting over. So what the hell. Maybe I'll post the other album sometime later. Until then, have a listen to the EP, and as always, let me know what you think.

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