Phil Ochs

American Troubadour

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This two-CD set from English A&M appeared within days of Rhino Records' U.S. release Farewells & Fantasies, but it overlaps with the Rhino triple-CD set to a surprisingly small degree. Rather than licensing any of Phil Ochs' Elektra Records sides, the producers elected instead to confine this set to recordings done during Ochs' years with A&M, from 1966 through the early '70s. Thus, American Troubadour is not a comprehensive overview of Phil Ochs' career, although some of his pre-A&M work is represented by concert performances and some late career re-recordings. Basically, Ochs' A&M recordings were characterized by sound and production experiments that were only partly successful, highlighted by the occasional piercing lyric or hauntingly beautiful musical phrase (exemplified by "Crucifixion," which had both), and a gift for wry humor second to nobody in his generation. Ochs' biggest musical problem was that in the late '60s, humor wasn't on a lot of peoples' minds, even if it was topical, complex, literate, and angry in its purpose. Coupled with the almost pathologically serious outlook that he brought to his work, it now seems almost inevitable that Ochs' work and life would spiral down at some point. Disc one is directed toward the strongest songs from Ochs' original A&M output of the late '60s, and is, to some degree, an improved version of the single CD War Is Over: The Best of Phil Ochs that A&M issued domestically in the late '80s. In the course of showcasing his best work of the period, however, the CD also brings into focus the shortcomings of Ochs' work during this period: "Crucifixion" in its original studio version off of the Pleasures of the Harbor album, is an overproduced mess, the greatest song of his career and it's buried under way too many layers of dissonant orchestra and electronic noise. The rival Rhino Records triple-CD set went with a live acoustic version of the song, which represents it much better. In fairness, however, American Troubadour has one essential Phil Ochs song that's not on Rhino's set, "Half a Century High," and the underrated lyrical, laid-back studio version of "Tape from California." With such oft-overlooked tracks as "Joe Hill," one of his last ventures into pure folk-style songwriting, and representative conceptual works such as "William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed" also featured, one gets a good picture of the range of Ochs' best work. Disc two fills in the holes left by its predecessor -- live versions of some of Ochs' best early songs and a few key tracks off his later, more troubled (and troubling) albums, a few choice rock & roll outtakes, plus odd singles like his "big band" version of "The Power and the Glory" and both sides of his Africa-only single release "Bwatue" b/w "Niko Mchumba Ngobe." Overall this is not quite an ideal compilation, but it does touch several bases that its American equivalent misses, and gives a better picture of his A&M output than any other collection.