Phil Ochs

A Toast to Those Who Are Gone

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The family of Phil Ochs sanctioned this scavenger attack into his collection of early, unreleased demos. An unusual aspect of the mid-'80s vinyl release was liner notes by actor Sean Penn, who Ochs fans can hope and pray has abandoned his vision of playing the role of Ochs in a Hollywood film biopic. Perhaps playing a jazz guitarist in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown burned Penn out on musician roles. How much this collection will appeal to Ochs fans will depend on what camp they belong to, i.e., is his best material the early, strictly topical and journalistic-style stuff, or did he improve with age and the influence of competing spinners of "high art" such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles as they strove to create the most complex and pretentious lyrics this side of Ezra Pound? This set of concise and often hard-hitting songs would make a case for the former, and certainly there is no better "folk singer armed with guitar" than Ochs, his commitment to various social causes always seeming much more honest than the more famous Dylan, most likely because it was. "Christmas in Kentucky" is one of the few protest songs written about this part of the world that really holds its own with the repertoire of performers, such as Aunt Molly Jackson, who actually came from mining families. "Colored Town" and "Going Down to Mississippi" are solid reflections of the civil rights movement that hold their own with more well-known songs such as "Oxford Town." Two pieces in some ways preview the more reflective, personal probing of the psyche Ochs would move his fans with later on, although both "A Toast to Those Who Are Gone" and "Song of My Returning" are simpler and more sentimental. Of course, there is plenty of evidence here that these recordings were made when the artist was still forming an identity and was far from the master of the songwriting craft that he would become. Yet the relative small size of his discography and collection of songs are factors that contribute to the warm welcome this set has received. The CD version of this includes one extra song, "The Trail."

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