Monday, September 3, 2012
Tape From California - Phil Ochs
Tape From California
A&M SP 4148
Here's a Labor Day post for one of the most ardent unionists in American rock music, Phil Ochs. This is my favorite Ochs album in which, as the liner notes say, Ochs drops us "a line from the beautiful people coast." It is a satiric yet heart-felt album that represents Ochs at the height of his creative power. The opening song "Tape From California" is one of the best songs Ochs ever wrote. It uses a propulsive folk-rock structure with a piano and a harpsichord layering a chamber pop melody line on top while Ochs sweetly croons stunningly surreal and evocative lyrics. It captures the anxiety and craziness of the late 1960s as well as any song you will ever hear. It is followed by "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land" which is a scathing anti-Vietnam War song. The song is a return to Ochs' folk roots in style and content although it is less overtly didactic and more poetic than his earlier work. It is mostly just Ochs and his acoustic guitar with some brass overdubs. "Half a Century High" rips television regarding it as a quasi-drug that distorts perception and reality. It returns to the sound of "Tape From California" mixing folk-rock with chamber pop courtesy of a harpsichord. "Joe Hill" is another folk song which describes the life and death of the labor hero. It is a different song than the Alfred Hayes/Earl Robinson song that Joan Baez sang at Woodstock. It is a lot longer and more detailed, an epic narrative ballad. Ochs and Ramblin' Jack Elliott play guitar on the song. Side one ends with "The War Is Over" which is yet another folk-rock/chamber pop hybrid with an elaborate arrangement and supplemented by brass and winds. At the end of the song the band plays the theme from Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore." This is a classic protest song in which Ochs attacks the Vietnam War to the point of likening it to America committing suicide and urging the opposition to declare the war over, in essence beating John and Yoko to the "war is over if you want it" idea. It is a very powerful and inspiring song that Ochs sings with a soaring optimistic vocal. This brilliant song transcends agit-prop to achieve anthemic status. Side two opens with "The Harder They Fall" which has strings and a piano giving it a chamber pop flavor. The song uses nursery rhyme characters to make cynical and bitter observations about contemporary life. It is a bit heavy-handed for my taste but he certainly lands a lot of punches. It is followed by 13 minutes and 15 seconds of "When In Rome" in which Ochs takes a sociopath on a journey through the decadence of contemporary American society which is pointedly compared to the fall of the Roman Empire. It is a grim song but Ochs' vivid imagery and poetic language make it really compelling. It is just the man and his guitar but I find the song completely gripping. Ochs follows this hellish song with the sweet chamber pop of "Floods of Florence." The song appears to be about the transience and fragility of art and mentions the great silent film director D. W. Griffith which surely must be a rock first. Ochs would learn about the transience of art first hand in a few years when his career would go into a nosedive, but fortunately for those of us who admire him, his work would grow in stature after his tragic death. This marvelous album really captures the 1960s for me. What I find interesting about it, is the dynamic between the anger and turmoil in the lyrics and the beauty and lyricism of the music. In contrast to other 1960s politically charged albums like "Volunteers" or "Kick Out The Jams" where the music is loud and abrasive, this album is almost soothing in its sound. The other thing I find impressive about it, is that although on the surface Ochs expresses anger and anguish about the state of the world, his basic decency, idealism and patriotism is always evident beneath the surface. The man clearly loved America and what it is supposed to represent. Recommended for people who think that there is more to patriotism than waving a flag and blindly following leaders.