Phil Ochs

Cross My Heart: An Introduction to Phil Ochs

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What is most striking about Phil Ochs' work, both in his early folk period from 1964 to 1966 with Elektra Records and his more ornate pop approach from 1967 to 1970 with A&M Records, is the humanity and humor that are almost continually on display. Superficially, he seemed to go through severe stylistic changes, but his writing never really strayed from a general yearning for peace and fairness in the world, and even his later songs, when stripped of their elaborate settings, echoed the sentiments of his earliest work. Cross My Heart is subtitled "An Introduction to Phil Ochs," but it features only tracks from his A&M albums (plus the odd "Niko Mchumba Ngobe" single that was released only in Africa), so the view is a little skewed. Still, there is enough here to show Ochs' strengths, which included a shrewd grasp of political metaphor (the harrowing "Crucifixion"); an ability to place labor, race, and class struggles on a dramatic, epic scale ("Joe Hill"); a lyrical yearning for a place to belong ("Jim Dean of Indiana"); and a wry sense of satire ("Pretty Smart On My Part"). At times the arrangements get out of hand, threatening to overwhelm Ochs' melodies (the more lyrical he got, the more he needed a certain sparseness to offset it), but his heart and soul are everywhere visible here. The busy, lush arrangements of Ochs' A&M years will always be a counterbalance to the simple, stark folk albums of his Elektra period, making for an unavoidable creative divide. Rhino's three-disc box Farewells & Fantasies makes a comprehensive attempt to pull the two phases together, but perhaps the best example of how seamless Ochs' life's work actually was comes from a concert he did in Vancouver in 1968. Released as There and Now by Rhino, the show features a solo Ochs performing both early and late material, and it all falls together as the voice of one man trying to convince, shame, charm, or trick the world into being a better place.

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