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Compilation salutes N.J.’s music history, aids Sandy recovery

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last October, scores of New Jerseyans sprang into action to help their fellow residents recover from the destruction in various shore communities. Many provided much-needed shelter, donated food, clothing and money, or simply rolled up their sleeves and offered some good, old-fashioned elbow grease.

Mick Chorba decided to help in a less typical way: by making a compilation album.

Nine months later, My Hometown: A Tribute to NJ is available, and it stands as both a fundraising project and a nod to New Jersey’s rich musical history. Chorba, a high-school English teacher and longtime musician who lives in Chesterfield, N.J., enlisted a roster of independent artists to cover tunes by established acts who either hail from, or have strong ties to, the Garden State. All proceeds from the sales and downloads of the collection will benefit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.

Chorba released the album on his FDR Label imprint, which has long been his vehicle for CDs by his own bands (The Successful Failures, The Dipsomaniacs) as well as a handful of compilation discs, including tributes to his two favorite bands: The Who and The Replacements.

This time, he had a larger purpose for cobbling together a lineup of artists and songs.
Chorba, 42, said he had already been itching to make another FDR compilation when the hurricane hit. Soon afterward, a neighbor suggested he organize some sort of benefit. “Then the idea to do tribute the state grabbed my imagination,” Chorba said.

However, the songs that would comprise the CD would be left to other artists’ imaginations (aside from a selection from The Successful Failures: Fountains of Wayne’s “I’ve Got a Flair”). The choices include songs by bona fide Jersey hitmakers (Bruce Springsteen, The Rascals, Lesley Gore) as well as tracks originally done by some of the state’s college/alternative rock heroes (The Bongos, Yo La Tengo, Dramarama) and one of its longstanding punk groups (Bouncing Souls).

“I reached out to bands I knew at first,” Chorba said. “Just about all the bands on the CD have played a show with me. So that means that most of them are indie rock, power pop, roots rock type bands. I made a few suggestions [for song ideas] but pretty much left it up to the bands.
“I like to say for my compilations that no song is too obvious or too obscure. So the Bruce Springsteen tracks [‘No Surrender,’ ‘Meeting Across the River’ and ‘Atlantic City’] seem kind of obvious — totally cool with that, [I] love Bruce and needed to have him on there. Some of the tracks were new to me — like The Anderson Council’s Critters track [‘He’ll Make You Cry’]. The Grip Weeds picked a great tune by The Knickerbockers, ‘Lies.’ I had no idea they were from New Jersey — they sound like they were from the British Invasion.

“So it was fun for me to learn a little about the musical heritage of my state.”

When it comes to showcasing that heritage, the assembled artists — most of whom are based in New Jersey, and all of them were on their own when it came to recording expenses — largely do the original tracks justice (Chorba says his out-of-pocket cost for doing the CD exceeds $2,000). As with any compilation of cover songs, the best cuts are often those that add a new twist to a familiar tune. Among those that pull it off are Bastards of Melody, who give Gore’s bubblegum smash “It’s My Party” a power-pop flavor; Snap Infraction, who perform a garage-rock sprint through The Rascals’ “You Better Run”; and Janet LaBelle, who starts the disc by stripping down The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” — a slice of quintessential ’60s girl-group pop — to just vocals and mandolin.

“Collecting these tracks was a joy,” Chorba said. “The bands all seemed really motivated to do something to help out. They wanted to get involved. Jack Rabid [from The Big Takeover magazine] submitted a track with his band Springhouse. When Jack saw the album cover [an iconic photo of the rollercoaster that Sandy uprooted from the Seaside Heights boardwalk and pushed into the Atlantic Ocean], he made a comment that it was a great reminder as to why they wanted to do this.”

And with still so many well-known New Jersey artists whose music did not end up on the disc — Frank Sinatra, anyone? — Chorba can already envision a follow-up to My Hometown.

”I would love to do a Volume 2,” he said. “I’m expecting to hear a lot about what isn’t on the CD — and it will be a very valid criticism. This just shows you what an amazing state New Jersey is. There’s a line in the John Gorka song [‘I’m From New Jersey’] — something like, ‘People from New Jersey try harder … They never think they are good enough.’ Like we’ve got something to prove. I don’t think there are many states that can boast such a rich rock ’n’ roll history as New Jersey. And I hope this CD can be part of the proof.”

— By George Henn

All proceeds from My Hometown: A Tribute to NJ will benefit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. The album is available on CD or via download at www.fdrlabel.com. The Successful Failures will headline a record release party on July 26 at The Record Collector in Bordentown, N.J.