By Richie Unterberger

With his first album for A&M, Pleasures of the Harbor (1967, also reissued on CD by Collectorsí Choice Music), Phil Ochs made a daring entry into both full band arrangements and complicated near-art songs, in styles ranging from Dixieland jazz and lounge music to classical orchestration and musique concrete. The transition might have been too abrupt for much of his audience, coming from an artist that had made his name with protest folk songs, performed solo on acoustic guitar. Ochs perhaps bore that in mind when he made his next record, 1968ís Tape from California, a simpler affair, recorded quickly with notably less elaborate backing.

    "In my new album," he told Broadside, "Iím going to make the next step, which will be a comment on the spiritual decline of America, with some of the musical elements I had in Harbor but somewhat played down. And the words are coming to the fore again. Essentially, Iím going to try and get a balance between the Harbor record and the (solo guitar 1966) Concert one that preceded it."

    As a composer, however, Ochs was not going to regress to the topical folk songs that had dominated his mid-1960s Elektra albums to the exclusion of almost all else. Tape in Californiaís eight songs were as varied a lot as those on its predecessor, jumping from his artiest poetry to numbers that could have just about fit into his pre-1967 repertoire. Pleasures of the Harbor producer Larry Marks would once again work on the sessions, as would pianist Lincoln Mayorga and, for "The Floods of Florence" at least, arranger Ian Freebairn-Smith, who had devised much of the settings that gave Pleasures its diverse, ornate character.

    Ochs never played rockíníroll in as straightforward a fashion as he did on the six-minute title cut. Musically straightforward, that is. Lyrically, it was the sort of epic found on much of Pleasures for the Harbor (and some of his subsequent work), a drifting narrative that most likely contained some autobiographical elements, as it was written around the time he moved from New York to Los Angeles. "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land," in contrast, found Ochs returning to the anti-war statements that comprised much of his bread-and-butter in his folkie rise to fame. However, it had a more observational tone and more poetic imagery than his early strident tunes of the sort. "Weíre fighting in a war we lost before the war began," he lamented, accurately mirroring the despair of the counterculture as the United States sank deeper into the quicksand of the Vietnam War in 1968, with no end to the senseless escalation in sight. The track nonetheless boasted a characteristically gentle, memorable Ochs melody and understated vocals, as well as clever insertions of martial bugles and gunfire.

    "Half a Century High" had actually been in Ochsí repertoire for some time, as a 1966 concert version was included on his posthumously released Phil Ochs at Newport CD. It could be said that, as with the avant-garde/electronic treatment of "Crucifixion" on Pleasures of the Harbor, the singer tried to be too clever for his own good with the studio version. His voice was distorted so that it sounded like it was indeed playing through a 50-year-old wind-up gramophone, although the harpsichord tinkles added some nice color. "Joe Hill," likewise, had been written some time before it was recorded. The ode to the legendary labor hero, set to the melody of Woody Guthrieís "Pretty Boy Floyd," could have fit onto a 1964 Phil Ochs LP with its leftist topicality and unadorned acoustic guitar-vocal arrangement. The flat-picked guitar on this track was by Rambliní Jack Elliott, whose drunkenness, Larry Marks has recalled, made the tune difficult to complete.

    "The War Is Over" was the finest song on Tape from California. This was released at a time, of course, when the war in Vietnam seemed as far from being over as was humanly possible. Ochs had a knack for cannily playing disturbing lyrics and images off jaunty melodies and exuberant vocals, a trait heard to brilliant effect on his famous "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" and this less celebrated composition. Military beats, flutes, and horns set the table for this surreal portrait of the absurdity of war, with its indelible scene of one-legged veterans whistling as they mow the lawn. The war is over, yes, but was that kind of cost worth it? Ochsí own likely sentiments peeped through the irony when he noted that even treason might be worth a try, not just to prevent more deaths, but to keep the country itself from committing suicide.

    Side two of Tape from California found Ochs moving towards the more florid musical settings and lyrics that had typified much of Pleasures of the Harbor. "The Harder They Fall" twisted nursery rhymes into sinister scenes, and though the lyrics were more abstract than cogent, itís undeniably memorable to hear Jack and Jill going up the hill for the kind of thrills not hinted at in the original prose, and Mother Goose cited for stealing lines from Lenny Bruce and killing Jews. The 13-minute "When in Rome" was the Ochs epic to end all Ochs epics, a nightmarish journey through a Boschian landscape that could have been taking place in ancient Rome, twentieth century America, or both. As with Bob Dylanís own 1960s marathons ("Desolation Row" is the song to which "When in Rome" is most likely to be compared), it could be subjected to infinite interpretations, none of them necessarily correct or incorrect. Reportedly the composition was inspired by the Elia Kazan film Viva Zapata!; the relentlessly downbeat lyrics were leavened somewhat by Ochsí lilting vocal and the simple, just-a-man-and-his-acoustic-guitar arrangement.

    "When in Rome" might have been too much of a downer to end the album with, and Tapes from California came to a more graceful close with "The Floods of Florence." Its strings, flute, and harpsichord marked a return to the baroque orchestrated pop that Ochs, Marks, and arranger Ian Freebairn-Smith flirted with throughout Philís first two A&M albums. Actually the lyrics of the song were just as dreamlike and non-linear as those in "When in Rome," but the vibe was more romantic than despairing.

    Despair, however, was a sentiment that would become more prevalent in Ochsí music (and life) as 1968 progressed and American society seemed to edge closer to collapse. It was a mindset that Ochs would explore more fully in his next album, 1969's Rehearsal for Retirement, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice. Tape from California, however, captured a juncture at which Ochsí optimism and sensitivity were still to be found, even as the darker sides of personality came to the fore on occasion as well. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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