Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ian & Sylvia - Ian and Sylvia

Ian & Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Columbia C 30736

There are no bad Ian and Sylvia albums.  If you are a fan of the duo, you should buy all of them, but I wouldn't make this one a priority.  It is actually not all that easy to find since it did not sell much when it was originally released.  It was their first album for Columbia Records and the penultimate studio album in their career.  The duo had moved from folk and folk-rock to a more country rock sound that suited them extremely well although they did not abandon their folk roots completely.  The album opens on a positive note with David Wiffen's "More Often Than Not."  Wiffen also wrote one of my favorite Tom Rush songs, "Driving Wheel."  It is a sparkling country-pop tune sung by Ian with vocal sweetening from Sylvia that describes the life of a musician on the road.  It is a terrific song, one of my favorites on the album.  The album takes a nose dive with the sappy love song, "Creators of Rain."  It is credited to Smokey which is a pseudonym for a guy named Larry Mims who had recorded it with his sister back in the 1960s under the name Smokey and his Sister.  Ian and Sylvia sing it beautifully but it is still a crummy song and the corny string arrangement doesn't help it any.  According to John Einarson's book on Ian and Sylvia, Columbia Records executive Clive Davis forced them to record the song against their will which I can easily believe since Ian and Sylvia normally have unfailingly excellent taste in covers.  The album rebounds with Ian's "Summer Wages" which is a remake of a song he recorded back in 1967 in a folk-rock version for "So Much For Dreaming."  I don't know why he chose to record it again, but I have to admit that the country flavored version on this album is more satisfying.  Ian sings it with a lot of feeling and Sylvia's harmony vocal on the chorus is divine.  The song is about bumming around and the transience of love narrated with very evocative imagery.  I think it is one of Ian's best all-time songs and it is my favorite song on the album.  Sylvia sings lead on her composition "Midnight" which is a slow bluesy love song.  Her sensuous vocal really sends me and there is a nice sultry guitar solo from David Wilcox as well.  Ian and Sylvia co-wrote "Barney" which is a gut-wrenching autobiographical account of him shooting his favorite horse to put it out of misery.  It has a stark arrangement, largely driven by Sylvia's piano playing that puts all the focus on Ian's heartbreaking vocal.  It is an incredible song, one of the most moving and powerful songs in their long career.  Side two kicks off with Ian's "Some Kind of Fool" which is a charming country rock love song forcefully sung by Ian.  Ian's "Shark and the Cockroach" is a goofy country-rocker with a swamp rock flavor that features a gritty vocal from Ian embellished with some yodels.  Next is a cover of John Dawson's "Last Lonely Eagle" which appeared in a superior version on the debut album by the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  Ian and Sylvia sing it as a mournful duet with sparse accompaniment with a little instrumental color coming from Weldon Myrick on steel guitar.  Of course Ian and Sylvia sing it great, I'd listen to them sing just about anything but I still find the song kind of boring.  I don't really care much either for "Lincoln Freed Me" which was written by singer/songwriter David Patton.  As you can probably tell from the title it is written from the point of view of a freed slave.  Ian and Sylvia duet on this as well accompanied only by David Wilcox on guitar.  It galls me to write this, but I prefer the version by Joan Baez on "Blessed Are..." not because she sings it better than them (as if!) but because of the more elaborate instrumental arrangement on her version.  Sylvia takes a solo turn on Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death."  It also only features Wilcox on guitar for instrumental support but it is such a strong song that it really doesn't need anything more than that.  Sylvia sings it with a lot of feeling and this is one of my favorite versions of that oft-covered classic.  The album concludes with Sylvia's "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" which is about breaking up.  It is a majestic tune driven by a strong organ line and some tasteful strings.  The heartbreaking lyrics are so strong and vivid I feel like Sylvia must be writing from her heart envisioning the imminent end of her marriage and partnership with Ian.  I've loved Ian and Sylvia since I was a teenager, it really tears me up to listen it, almost as if I were listening to my own parents breaking up.  It provides a beautiful and emotional conclusion to the album.  This album is too spotty to rank with the best Ian and Sylvia albums but it still features some of the best music they ever did.  I would include the remake of "Summer Wages," "Barney" and "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" among their very best songs and the album is worth seeking out just for them.  Aside from "Creators of Rain" even the weaker songs have much merit.  Ian and Sylvia may have been nearing the end of their road together, but this album shows that they still had plenty of vitality and creativity.  It deserved a better fate, it was largely ignored upon its release failing to even crack the top 200 albums chart in sales.  I like it better than a lot of the other albums that came out in 1971 and recommend it to anyone who values emotional honesty in music.

No comments:

Post a Comment