February 14, 1996
A.J. Croce, That's Me in the Bar (Private 1995) - It's tough being the child of a famous performer. Although A.J. Croce was only two years old when his father, Jim Croce, died in a plane crash in 1973, A.J.'s spent a good part of his life escaping his father's shadow.
On That's Me in the Bar, Croce comes into his own, with 12 tunes that range from ballads to boogie woogie to charming love songs, all bracketed by Croce's idiosyncratic piano style and gruff vocals.
Despite his distinctive sound, A.J. has been mistakenly typecast in a Harry Connick, Jr. mode, partly because of his love of barrelhouse piano playing and haunting ballads. But that's where the comparison ends. Connick is more of the showman, while Croce is the superior songsmith. For example, "I Confess," a late night love song with a sweet horn-and-string background, sounds just like a Randy Newman tune.
Croce's worldly lyrics and raspy vocals belie his youthful age of 24. A.J.'s had more than his share of hard luck; he had a brain tumor at age 4 that caused him to be blind for almost five years, nearly deaf, and close to death for awhile.
After a series of operations, sight was restored to his left eye at age 9. About the same time, A.J. started playing piano. Because of vision problems, he literally felt his way around the keyboard, squeezing next to a songwriter friend of his mother as she played tunes for A.J.
That's Me in the Bar is Croce's second album, and is much more focused than his debut release. After a difficult time in the studio, the initial recording of That's Me in the Bar was scrapped and long-time session man Jim Keltner (who also plays drums) was brought in as producer. The result is gem of a recording.
In addition to Keltner, the album features such seasoned performers as Ry Cooder and Waddie Wachtell on guitar, Bob Glaub on bass, and Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowen on backing vocals. These musicians have worked together for years, and their combined talents bring Croce to new heights.
Also making a guest appearance is David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, who provides the accordion to the touching "She's Waiting for Me" (and I'm all too familiar with Croce's line, "I should've been home hours ago/I hope that our plans are not ruined/I hope that she's not too mad").
This album has been hugely undermarketed (in part because Croce has spent considerable time playing in Europe and New York, so that there has been no supporting tour). With its wistfully charming and frequently clever lyrics, That's Me in the Bar is an overlooked delight. Croce is his own man, and the new album reveals a major talent.
The High Llamas, Gideon Gaye (Epic 1995) - Fronted by leader Sean O'Hagan, The High Llamas recall influences of Todd Rundgren and Van Dyke Parks. However, what Gideon Gaye most resembles is the mid-70s Beach Boys (particularly the bizarre masterpiece, Love You).
Gideon Gaye was recorded in 1994 as a semi-solo project, and mixes piano, vox organ, moog, glockenspiel, vibes, and harpsichord with rock guitars and multi-tracked vocals. The British press ate it up, and the album has now been released in the States by Epic.
Frontman O'Hagan first drew notice in the mid-80s with Irish band Microdisney, as he worked with fiery singer/lyricist Kathal Coughlin. After six acclaimed albums (including the memorably-named, We Hate You South African Bastards), the two parted ways in 1987, with Coughlin eventually forming The Fatima Mansions.
In 1990, O'Hagan re-emerged with a solo album on Elvis Costello's Demon label. He settled in the London borough of Camberwell, where he soon teamed up with local band Stereolab. O'Hagan played keyboards on Stereolab's U.S. and U.K. tours, and also appeared on three Stereolab albums.
I've heard that every rock and pop genre is later recycled. It may take a decade or more, but a once-popular sound [be it rockabilly, girl groups, or (gasp!) disco] is eventually resurrected. And that what makes Gideon Gaye tick; O'Hagan tries to recreate the early 70's, surf-and-too-many-drugs sound. Who'd have expected it?
Gideon Gaye is an easy-flowing album, and has its moments. However, the disc runs out of steam towards the end: the 14-minute "Track Goes By" sounds like it has a skip, as the song repeats itself mindlessly [according to the liner notes, the song "continues blithely and assuredly"].
However, what Gideon Gaye lacks is Brian Wilson's songs. While the Beach Boys albums from the 70s may not be classics, they often contained at least one terrific single, and some cosmically goofy lyrics by Brian Wilson. Without this humorous touch, Gideon Gaye falls short of its mark. But it tries hard.
Feelin' Groovy -- During a recent interview, actor Robert Blake (best known for his role as TV's Baretta, and now starring in the new film, Money Train), talked about his troubled history. Said Blake, "I'm not an alcoholic -- I'm an addict. I'm not even a drug addict. I'm an any kind of addict. If a Hershey bar makes me feel better, I'll have a bathtub of them tomorrow.
"Anything that takes me out of how I feel, I abuse. I don't give a fuck what it is -- alcohol, nicotine, sleeping pills, uppers, downers, sideways, whatever. If it changes how I feel, I use a lot of it." Blake's living proof of the addictive personality -- as he says, an "any kind of addict."
-- Randy Krbechek
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