In those heady, pre-American Idol days, the route to success had many paths. For New Jersey’s Critters, the path was local, with the band making a name for itself in the tree-lined suburbs of Westfield, Scotch Plains and Princeton, gigging at high schools, colleges, and Knights of Columbus halls. Though they were proficient at covering the days’ hits, The Critters also boasted some formidable songwriters at a time when recording one’s own songs was becoming de rigeur. Before long, The Critters were opening gigs for The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, and Jay and the Americans, and had a contract with Musicor Records, home of Gene Pitney and The Platters. Though the tenure at Musicor was short, The Critters made enough noise to be signed by Artie Ripp to Kama-Sutra Productions, and solidified their reputation with two 1966 hits, “Younger Girl” and “Mr. Dieingly Sad.” Those two singles aren’t the whole story, though.
Now Sounds first anthologized the band in 2011. Awake in a Dream: The Project 3 Recordings collected the band’s 1968-1969 recordings for Enoch Light’s Project 3 label. With its latest release, Now Sounds turns the clock back to The Critters’ brief heyday, before personnel changes and questions of musical direction altered the band’s sound irrevocably. The new Younger Girl: The Complete Kapp and Musicor Recordings (CRNOW 33, 2012) upgrades and improves Taragon’s 1994 CD The Anthology: The Complete Kapp Recordings, by adding six tracks and a customarily excellent design and presentation from reissue producer Steve Stanley. Alan Brownstein has remastered from the original mono master tapes.
Whereas the Project 3 recordings are more in a soft-psych vein, the Critters’ earlier recordings are an amalgam of the pop styles they’d honed to perfection on the touring circuit. Hit the jump for more!
The Critters’ first and only long-player for Kapp forms the crux of the new anthology. It was titled after the track that cracked the Billboard charts at No. 42 in July 1966: Younger Girl. Written by John Sebastian and originally recorded by The Lovin’ Spoonful on their 1965 debut LP Do You Believe in Magic, the gentle remembrance of an unattainable love became a signature song for The Critters. Only two Critters, however, actually appeared on the track, Don Ciccone (rhythm guitar/vocals) and Kenny Gorka (bass/vocals); producer Artie Ripp augmented them with studio musicians for Jimmy Wisner’s subdued but sublime arrangement. Chris Darway (piano, organ and vocals), Jack Decker (drums), and especially Jimmy Ryan (lead guitar, vocals, and arrangements) would all make their presence felt on the full LP released in August 1966.
Younger Girl, the album, included a number of previously issued single sides as well as newly-recorded material. Other than the Sebastian song and a Jackie DeShannon-penned cut, all of the songs were written by Ciccone, Ryan or Darway. Among those singles was the song that would nab the Critters their best chart placement, the Ciccone-written “Mr. Dieingly Sad.” (It peaked at No. 17 in October of that year.) Unfortunately, Don Ciccone was drafted into the Air Force in May 1966, and never got the chance to tour behind his beloved song with The Critters or even finish recording the balance of the material on Younger Girl. In any event, the odd, misspelled title of “Mr. Dieingly Sad” might have drawn attention to the song, but as a piece of pop songcraft, it doesn’t get much better than its sweet vocals and completely irresistible hook. It remains the highlight of an album that’s packed with pop nuggets, soft and otherwise.
The Ciccone/Ryan co-write “Gone For A While” and Ryan’s “Come Back On A Rainy Day” are both exceedingly lovely ballads, and reissue producer Steve Stanley reveals in the liner notes that the latter is Ciccone’s favorite of the Critters’ recordings. With a beautifully hushed vocal and a melody that simply conjures the falling rain, “Come Back” clocks in at less than two minutes, but this earnest gem about an apparently beguiling partner resonates much longer: “The sunlight in your eyes can make me say things I don’t want to…”
It’s a mystery how Jackie DeShannon’s “Children and Flowers” b/w Jimmy Ryan’s “He’ll Make You Cry” didn’t score mightily when they were released as a single in December 1965. The former has a bit of a Byrds flavor to it (think the DeShannon-written, Byrds-backed “Splendor in the Grass,” for one!) while the latter has a thunderous and radio-friendly Phil Spector-esque arrangement. It all sounds much smoother in the LP version of the song, but oddly both versions are combined as Track 11 on the new disc rather than sequenced individually.
The Critters’ sound is much like an extension of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s goodtime music, but the album has plenty of diversity, too. Clearly, the Critters studied the whole of popular music well. Jimmy Ryan’s slightly exotic “It Just Won’t Be That Way” is a little over two minutes’ worth of thumping garage rock but with shimmering, ethereal harmonies that just seem to hang there. Then there are the standard-issue folk-rockers like “Best Love You’ll Ever Have” and “Everything But Time,” but you might just hear a touch of The Monkees here, The Turtles there, The Association over there somewhere!
Thirteen bonus tracks more than double the original LP’s 12-song line-up. The band’s time at Musicor only resulted in one single (“Georgianna” b/w “I’m Gonna Give”) but both sides are included here, as well as a previously unreleased outtake (the now ironically-titled “So Hard to Find”) recorded at the label. The ballad “So Hard to Find” is the strongest of three Musicor-titles and the most redolent of “Younger Girl” and “Mr. Dieingly Sad.” Also added are the subsequent single sides recorded at Kama-Sutra/Kapp, and one true mystery: both sides of a single issued on “Prancer Records” in 1967. Though the B-side, “I’m Telling Everyone,” was an early, fairly primitive Don Ciccone composition performed by The Critters, the A-side “No One But You” is of unclear origin.
Best of the bonus tracks are the two penned and produced by the team of Anders and Poncia. Though the duo had collaborated on songs with Phil Spector, “Bad Misunderstanding” and “Marryin’ Kind of Love” (co-written with Doc Pomus!) are closer to the sounds the duo made as The Trade Winds and The Innocence. These two tracks deserved better than their respectively No. 55 and No. 111 chart placements. Jimmy Ryan and Chris Darway’s “New York Bound” marries the guitar-rock sound with some groovy organ and more luscious harmonizing. Though these Jersey natives had captured the spirit of the city across the Hudson, it failed to chart altogether.
Darway’s “Walk Like a Man Again” has more of a folk-rock sound, with a laconic, almost Dylan-esque lead vocal. It has no relation to the Bob Gaudio/Bob Crewe song that was a hit for The Four Seasons, although the Critters had ties to that group: the band almost recorded with Crewe but they couldn’t agree on an artistic direction. Ciccone, of course, later went on to join the Seasons in the 1970s. Although Jimmy Ryan recounts in Steve Stanley’s notes that Bob Crewe wanted the Critters to sound like the Four Seasons, they succeeded quite well on their own with Ryan’s Seasons-esque “Don’t Let the Rain Fall Down on Me.” The Critters’ final Top 40 hit, from August 1967, it has falsetto parts, strong group singing, a radio-friendly beat and a memorable hook. It’s also one of the best songs here. A cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” doesn’t scale those heights, failing to bring enough new to the table.
The band pressed on following an acrimonious split with Kama-Sutra over the company’s accounting practices. They signed with Enoch Light’s Project 3 Records in fall 1967. Drummer Jack Decker was replaced by Jeff Pelosi. Chris Darway would follow Decker out of the band sometime during the recording of the first Project 3 album, and he was replaced by Bobby Spinella. The story of the two Project 3 albums continues on Now Sounds’ Awake in a Dream. For now, though, there’s no need to be mystifyingly glad. Just be glad, period, that the beguiling sounds of The Critters are back.
Younger Girl: The Complete Kapp and Musicor Recordings is in stores today from Now Sounds. You can order at the link below!
The Critters, Younger Girl: The Complete Kapp and Musicor Recordings (Now Sounds CRNOW 33, 2012)
- Younger Girl
- It Just Won’t Be That Way
- Gone for Awhile
- Children and Flowers
- Everything But Time
- Come Back on a Rainy Day
- Mr. Dieingly Sad
- I Wear a Silly Grin
- Best Love You’ll Ever Have
- Forever or No More
- He’ll Make You Cry (Single Version and LP Version)
- Blow My Mind
- Little Girl
- Bad Misunderstanding
- Marryin’ Kind of Love
- New York Bound
- Walk Like a Man Again
- Dancing in the Street
- Heart of Love, Head of Stone
- Don’t Let the Rain Fall Down on Me
- I’m Gonna Give
- So Hard to Find
- No One But You
- I’m Telling Everyone
Tracks 1-12 from Kapp LP KL-1485, 1966
Tracks 13 & 18 from Kapp single K-858, 1967
Track 14 from Kapp single K-793, 1966
Tracks 15-16 from Kapp single K-805, 1967
Tracks 17 & 20 from Kapp single K-838, 1967
Track 19 from Kapp EP, 1967
Tracks 21 & 22 from Musicor single MU-1044, 1967
Track 23 previously unreleased
Tracks 24-25 from Prancer single PR-6001, 1967