Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Our Time In Eden," by the 10,000 Maniacs

My friend, Rachel, recently suggested I write about the 10,000 Maniacs breakthrough 1987 album, In My Tribe, which was, essentially, their introduction to a mass audience and my first listen to this remarkable band. But as I was listening to my Maniacs catalogue, I realized that I strongly preferred their final album with Natalie Merchant, Our Time In Eden, released in the fall of 1992, when I was starting my senior year of college. It brings back great memories: I didn’t have many financial resources in those days, so I don’t remember exactly how I purchased a copy of the album that September, but I did, and as it turns out, it was a worthwhile investment, as it turned out to be the best album they ever recorded.

The Maniacs followed-up In My Tribe, with the daunting, preachy, Blind Man’s Zoo, which had one solitary, mostly-cheerful song (and best cut on the album), “Trouble Me,” in which the tender video depicts Merchant as the key social director to a certain, lucky senior citizen. The rest of the LP was depressing and funereal. I remember buying the cassette of Blind Man’s Zoo the week I graduated high school in May of 1989. I would listen to it in my Walkman while I mowed the lawn at the farm that summer, and the maudlin music somehow comforted me as I dreaded the terrifying prospect that lie ahead: leaving my beautiful, Neponset countryside for university dorm life. Fitting, then, that the band decided to bookend my college career by releasing their follow-up to Blind Man’s Zoo the fall of my final year at Northern Illinois University.

Our Time In Eden, receiving a perfect, 5-star rating in Rolling Stone magazine at the time (a rating, which, somehow lost two stars over the past two decades in preceding RS publications), was exactly what I suspected from the band: serious-minded, catchy, and socially-conscious jingle-jangle-pop that was no-doubt informed by The Byrds, Big Star, and early-REM (relevant sidebar: I'm so glad REM retired; there's something to be said about bowing-out before it's too late: I'm lookin' at you, U2...). What’s not to love about that hybrid? Finally ejecting the tyrannical (and reportedly verbally abusive to the Maniacs) Peter Asher as producer, the band was able to loosen-up and have fun. Merchant’s lyrics are always aimed squarely at the heart and at the head, but on Eden, Merchant and the Maniacs kicked-up the fun, adding Motown horns and hard rock (no joke!) guitars to the folk-pop mix to which we fans had grown accustomed. The result? Sublime and timeless ear-candy.

The first “hit” on the album (#66) was the optimistic and hella-catchy, “These Are Days,” with a video featuring Merchant in a cute, white Gap sweater (only $12.99!) singing on top of New York skyscraper, with break-away shots of children running through the woods (was one of those kids wearing a Nixon mask? I’m not sure, but what about the boy with the “kiss me quiet” written on his forehead and the girl with the “squeeze me slow!” written on her stomach?) and college students playing footsy (I didn’t understand the point of the eye-patch on the dude, either, but I just went with it). Weird, you say? Not in the early 90’s, when flannel-wearing denizens of the era would have referred to it as simply, “granola.” I hate flannel shirts and black jeans to this day.

The second modest hit on the album (#67) was the Motown-influenced “Candy Everybody Wants,” about the evils of commercialism (“engineered opinions”) with the newly fashion-conscious Merchant blending genders in both a suit AND an evening gown, interspersed with the interchangeable “Simply Irresistible” girls and faux advertisements (“…lust and hate is the candy, and blood and love tastes so sweet”). Sigh... Socially conscious pop at it’s best. The irony of multi-million selling pop artists leveraging MTV to comment about the “travesty” of commercialism, to wit: “I don't want no lies, I don't watch TV, I don't waste my time reading magazines…” 

Nevertheless, Our Time In Eden is truly magnificent pop music, and if you’ve never heard it, I can’t recommend it enough. And thanks, Rachel, for reminding me of the 10,000 Maniacs. Great band. Great album. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

You Don't Mess Around With Jim, by Jim Croce

While only a fleeting 5-year recording career, Jim Croce charted an impressive ten songs in Billboard’s “Hot 100,” with eight of those hits reaching the top 40 and five reaching the top 10, two of which reached the #1 spot, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Time In A Bottle,” both in 1973. Croce’s third album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, spent 5 weeks at #1 in 1974 and is his best. The album was also his commercial breakthrough, spawning three top-20 singles, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim (#8, 1972),” “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels) (#17, 1972),” and the aforementioned, “Time In A Bottle (#1, 1973),” which gained momentum after being featured in a long-forgotten TV movie, “She Lives!” 

But the hit singles were only a small part of this album’s impact.The non-singles on the album contain hidden gems, which reflect some of Croce’s favorite themes, including the playful country romp, “Hard Time Losin’ Man,” with its twangy, back porch shuffle and saucy background vocals, and the contemplative, “Walkin’ Back To Georgia,” where the disillusioned narrator returns humbly to his hometown sweetheart after failing his dreams (in fact, Croce seemed particularly drawn to that specific sentiment, revisiting the topic for several songs on this album alone: the Georgia tune as well as “New York’s Not My Home” and “Box #10”). 

The best non-single on the album and the song that finds its way onto most Croce compilations is “A Long Time Ago,” which is characteristically Croce: mellow, maudlin, and catchy as hell. A close second is "Photographs And Memories," which is, again, maudlin and catchy, has also become a perennial Christmas holiday classic. The optimistic album closer, “Hey Tomorrow,” turned out to be both prophetic and, tragically, short-lived for the author.

That Jim Croce is a musician who’s not received his due can likely be relegated to two mitigating factors: 1.) his untimely death at the age of 30, and 2.) his widow, Ingrid’s, ongoing battle with his recording and publishing companies that, seeing his hit-making potential early-on, signed the young and naïve musician to a horrifyingly unfair contract. Eventually, Ingrid was victorious, winning back royalties for her husband’s catalogue and spending the next 40 years promoting his legacy through various reissues and compilations. Over the years, Croce has often been described as “the voice of the American workingman,” and I guess that means because his songs describe “everyday people” in “everyday situations,” but I’ve always struggled with that moniker. I think Croce’s go-to themes: love, loss, striving, losing, and hopeful persistence, are universal and transcend any one sub-group. Who hasn’t felt those things?

I believe it was my brother, Jay, who introduced my siblings and me to Jim Croce, and when I was very young, I sometimes confused my brother and Croce as the same person (I know, crazy, isn’t it? I also used to believe as a small child that Paul Williams was merely the shorter iteration of John Denver – sigh…too many episodes of “Big John, Little John,” I guess). I’ve often wondered what Croce’s career and life might have been like had he survived the plane crash. How might he have evolved, artistically? Would he have ventured into disco (don’t laugh, Seals and Crofts did it!) or songs about outer space as so many did in the latter part of the 70’s (I’m lookin’ at you, Elton John, David Bowie, and Karen & Richard Carpenter!)? Would he have included synthesizers and drum machines in his 1980’s albums (vis-à-vis Carole King, Joni Mitchell)? How might his “Vh1: Behind The Music” episode have played out in the 1990’s had Croce lived? Would there have been a stint in rehab? How many “experimental periods” might we have had to endure? Sigh… Sadly, we’ll never know, and honestly, I suspect I would have hung in there with him through all of it.