Jim Croce is unfairly underrated. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” is one of the most memorable sides of the Seventies, a song whose lighthearted take on heavy hands of the South Side of Chicago has etched itself into Americana. With less conviction but greater success, the finger-picked saccharine of “Time in a Bottle” is an eternal staple of all AM Gold collections. Even Croce’s lesser-known songs are wonderful little jaunts through fun stories and detoxified blues: songs like “Operator”, “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues”, and “You Don’t Mess around with Jim” prove that Croce’s craft was no coincidence, but a real talent lost with his early and untimely death.
But before Jim was a most famous mustachioed minstrel, he was a bald-faced newlywed in Delaware who received a most interesting nuptial present from his parents: $500 for this aspiring folkie to record and album (or perhaps to get the music business out of his system and to get a real, paying job). In the summer of 1966, Croce decided to use this money to record a few of his newly-penned tunes along with some of his old favorites: the result was the album Facets, eleven tracks of folk music that could not have been more born of the moment. While containing no embryonic versions of the songs that would later vaunt Croce to world-wide acclaim, the 500-disc pressing of Facets immediately sold out, making Jim not only a nifty profit of $2490, but also and more importantly making him a successful artist.
Facets was the springboard that not only allowed Jim to believe he could meet with success, but also earned Croce his first recording contracts. For the first time in nearly forty years, these long-unheard songs have now made their way to new light. As part of the campaign of the admirable Shout! label to update and renovate Croce’s catalogue, Facetscomes along to allow the true fan an opportunity to see as far back into one man’s creative career as the tapes allow. The results are interesting, albeit not astonishing. Croce did not leave uncovered any unpolished gems that rate in caliber along with the great work for which he is properly famous; instead we hear the different sides of his later musical styles begin to come together as Croce started to develop a manner all his own.
Gordon Lightfoot’s “Steel Rail Blues” opens Facets with the sweet finger-picked guitar we so closely associate with Croce. Present too is the unassuming tone of his comforting voice that brought such attention to so many of his ballads. It is only the train-imitating whine of a rather out-of-place harmonica that clues us in that these recordings are early indeed. Croce’s still-developing talent is more prominent still on his unnecessary cover of “Coal Tattoo”, a folk song so awful (and awfully funny) it would be more properly found on the soundtrack to A Mighty Wind. “Texas Rodeo” and “Running Maggie” both with their overblown banjos, similarly are not the most pleasant of jaunts down pre-memory lane; the absolutely horrid “The Ballad of Gunga Din” combines the unintended humor of “Coal Tattoo” and unnecessary seriousness of “Texas Rodeo” into a so completely obvious a folk song that one can’t help but laugh at this rather sorry (in every sense of the term) song.
It is instead on songs like “Rick” Von Schmidt’s “Big Fat Woman” and Croce’s own “Charley Green, Play That Slide Trombone” that we encounter the artist with whom we are far more familiar and whom we so rightfully admire: jangling guitars accompany a jovial voice telling great tales of super-sized loving and big brass bands. Croce romps his way through these tracks with the same vivacity he brings to the old standard “Hard-Hearted Hannah (The Vamp from Savannah)”, which could easily be the other-gendered blueprint for such similar anti-heroes as Leroy Brown and Jim. And while these tracks show Croce’s lighter side, it’s his sweeter and softer self we encounter on the cheery “Sun Come Up” and his beautiful cover of Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Until It’s Time for Me to Go”. It is in these solid and sometimes outstanding tracks that a smile comes to the listener’s face as we encounter the Jim Croce we can’t wait to take form.
That Jim Croce took some time to arrive. There were early and none-too-successful folk-styled albums for Capitol Records, including one with his wife Ingrid that went nowhere quickly. (Seven demos recorded for the latter make their way onto a “bonus” disc appended to Facets; I imagine that few beyond the immediate Croce family will be able to make it through this syrupy love-fest that is as cutely romantic as it is intolerable.) But what Facets makes clear is that Jim Croce was a talent that was bound to make it: the path from a sideways wedding present to world-wide and posthumous adulation is easily seen on these early recordings’ horizons. All of this makes the record an interesting listen, a neat piece of music history, and a great catalogue record. While it is not bound to sell nearly as many copies as an early Page/Plant demo tape might, it is nonetheless a worthy collection to a complete music library or an avid fan. At the very least, Facets helps us all to remember to pay worthy credit to the memory of it creator, the singular Jim Croce who was lost to us too soon.