Compass Records 4623
Not content to coast on the success of prior albums, A.J. Croce took on the Herculean task of creating a 12-cut album using six different producers and recording locations. The main thing his producers have in common is that they're all considered legendary -- Cowboy Jack Clement, Allen Toussaint, Greg Cohen, Mitchell Froom, Tony Berg, and Kevin Killen.
Though only 42 years old, Croce has been around the circuit for a relatively long time. He's opened for such disparate acts as Carlos Santana and Willie Nelson, and that sense of variety shows in his pick of producers for Twelve Tales, ranging from those who have produced albums by Johnny Cash (Clement) and Tom Waits (Cohen) to Fiona Apple and Bob Dylan (Berg). His singing at times will remind you of all of those artists and others. Is that borrowing or a tribute? If it's the former, he certainly has the sense to borrow the very best. And either way, Twelve Tales is an album that goes down easy in a familiar way and has a certain variety-show cohesiveness in spite of its different locales. Hovering over all, perhaps tying it together, is an understandable likeness to A.J.'s more famous father, Jim Croce, whose career was cut short in a tragic airplane crash in 1973, two years after A.J. was born.
The opening cut, "Right on Time," reminds me of Bob Dylan, as Croce incorporates some of that singer's trademark vocal tics into his singing. "Rollin' On" reminds me a lot of Jim Croce, but perhaps Steve Goodman as well. The tune, co-written with Leon Russell, features lots of great piano work. "Always and Evermore" has lots of twang from the guitars rolled out on a carpet of sound provided by Hammond organ. There are touches of Paul McCartney here.
"What Is Love" also reminds of McCartney with its warm and wistful tone and message of genuine regret. "Make It Work," with its guitar passages and ostinato jazz-tinged percussion, is in solid Jim Croce land. So is "Easy Money," but "Momentary Lapse of Judgement" seems to sashay toward Nashville. "Keep the Change" would be comfortable for Elton John. It's all quite enjoyably eclectic.
Though the focus of each track is a little different, the overall sound is full without ever becoming muddy. Rather, it's appealingly transparent; you can hear all of the details without losing the impact.
Twelve Tales is an acoustic rock album that explores a great number of styles yet stays cohesive, no doubt due to Croce's amazing vocal and instrumental talents, a great group of backing musicians, and production that allows all to be heard clearly. It's a feel-good album, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Be sure to listen to: The electric guitar solo that ends "The Time Is Up" (and the album as well), manages to tuck in a small reference to "Dixie" and is quite extraordinary.
. . . Rad Bennett