It’s said that for every ordinary, small-town girl who strikes it rich in the big city, there is a ravishing beauty flattened by a municipal bus. Life isn’t fair. And that applies to great albums more than anything.
Uncle Green was formed in Basking Ridge, New Jersey in 1980 by four high school freshmen. Over the next decade, singer-guitarists Matt Brown and Jeff Jensen, bassist Bill Decker, and drummer Peter McDade built a reputation on the burgeoning college-radio circuit for tight, memorable melodies and offbeat songcraft — something like R.E.M. and Pylon having a couple PBRs, well chilled, with Big Star.
By the 1990s they were ready for their close-up, championed by producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Black Crowes) and courted and signed to contracts by Atlantic Records and Sony Music (under O’Brien’s 57 Records banner). After reinventing themselves as 3 Lb. Thrill (a shout-out to the weight of the human brain), the erstwhile Uncle Green was poised for a breakthrough into alternative radio.
That’s when the municipal bus appeared.
Encouraged by O’Brien to produce an album in the cozy confines of their rented Atlanta home, the band set about writing and constructing Rycopa — a sprawling epic they believed would finally capture their distinctive, literate sensibility. Upon wrapping its 32 tracks in 1997, they were confident they had made their best record.
But fickle Sony “didn’t hear a single” and passed on the album. And Uncle Green was left wondering what to do with its homeless magnum opus. After a false start with yet another major label (MCA Records), they decided not to release the album and amicably went their separate ways. And the master tapes for Rycopa disappeared into the Sony vaults.
And there they languished for 14 years.
But as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, nothing ever truly dies. In 2011, the members of Uncle Green, long after they had started families and forged new careers, recovered the “lost” master tapes from Sony — and raised the funds through a Kickstarter campaign to mix Rycopa with engineer and Coolies guitarist Rob Gal. And soon the album had a new home on Wampus subsidiary Foldback Records.
“I don’t think (Sony) had to ask for it to be commercial,” Brown says. “After a previous spin on a major we knew that numbers were numbers, and that the numbers for Vulture (released as 3 Lb. Thrill) were not enough to keep spending Sony’s dough. At the same time, I don’t remember feeling the need to sit around and craft a ‘hit.’ Call it naiveté or stubbornness or stupidity, but after being a band for as many years as we had been already, what we wanted most was to make the record we wanted to make.”
Sixteen years later, it’s easy to hear Rycopa was that and a lot more.