Reviews: Country Joe and the Fish, Buffy Sainte Marie, Roxy Music, Neil Young, CMH Records

Give us an “F”!

For a shade over fifty years, the first two albums by Country Joe and the Fish have simultaneously ranked among both the most quintessential, and least acknowledged, jewels of the late sixties underground scene.  More political than most, less entranced by the joys of improv, and maybe too “folky” to really get the bongs bubbling, Electric Music for the Mind and Body and I Feel LIke I’m Fixin’ To Die stand today as albums for the furthest fringes of the psych psyche.  And they are all the better for it.

Give us an “I”!

If fishes were wishes, though, The Wave of Electrical Sound (Craft Recordings) would be the must-have vinyl box of the year so-far.   True, the packaging seems oddly silent on whether the original analogue masters were deployed.  But the sound is exemplary regardless, across four slabs of wax – those same two precious LPs, presented first in mono, and again in stereo.

Give us an “S”!

Several tons (okay, slight exaggeration) of memorabilia are added.  The fun-for-all Fish game that accompanied Fixin’, and a second poster offering up a calendar for February, 1967.  A thirty minute DVD documentary detailing the Fish’s anti-Vietnam activities. A reprint of the fan club’s original “indoctrination pamphlet,” and a twenty-four page booklet that explodes with color.  The albums are the expected 180 gram pressings; the first album is granted both its original sleeve and what is described as a “rare alternate” jacket.

Give us an “H”!

Hefty card and paper give the box extra weight – it really is a deluxe package, for a pair of albums that have deserved such treatment for a long time.  From “Flying High” and “…Porpoise Mouth” to “Colors for Susan” and “Rock Coast Blues,” and presiding over everything, the mighty “Rag” itself, these albums are a potent reminder of both a more innocent age, and a more engaged one, too.

What’s that spell?

It spells a moment in time when “protest” meant more than posting a frowny face on social media, and “opposition” was not defined by merely gain-saying whatever your opponent just said.  A time when music thought it could change things, and the establishment was worried that it might.

Do you feel like you’re fixin’ to buy, yet?  You should be.

The Vanguard label, wherein the fish originally swam, is invoked again by a new album from Buffy Sainte Marie, one of the company’s signature names through the 1960s, and still a potent force all these decades later.  The vinyl edition of Medicine Songs (Gypsy Boy Music) is a ten track distillation of what appear to have been some remarkably prolific recording sessions – the enclosed download card offers up ten bonus tracks, including the three additional songs that appear on the CD.  And it’s a staggering offering.

Sainte Marie has not sounded this powerful, or – more accurately – incensed in years.  Whether recounting a new composition (“You Got to Run,” with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq,or the positively seething “The War Racket”) or rewiring an oldie (“Soldier Blue,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”), her rage is palpable, in lyric, delivery and the stark accompaniment that makes every line feel like a gut punch.

“Starwalker,” a choice revision from 1976’s Up Where We Belong, rejoices in these surroundings; “The Priests of the Golden Bull,” originally heard on 1992’s Coincidence and Likely Stories, should send you hurtling back to rediscover that album.  Spoken more often that sung, rhythmic more than melodic, Medicine Songs utterly belies its maker’s advancing years – and dismisses, too, any preconceptions you might have brought to the party.

Visions of Dylan, Cohen and, occasionally, Marianne Faithfull flirt with Sainte-Marie’s own tones and tales, and the visceral highlights just keep coming.  “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”… Sainte Marie herself explained the decision to throw in her rerecordings with the reminder that “some of these songs were too controversial for radio play when they first came out, so nobody ever heard them, and now is my chance to offer them to new generations of like-minded people dealing with these same concerns. It’s like the play is the same, but the actors are new.”

This time, people should listen.

A new Neil Young album.  Another new Neil Young album.  The Visitor (Reprise), recorded with the now semi-regular The Promise of the Real made its CD debut at the end of last year, with the three-sided vinyl then following in January.  And it would be flippant to say it’s the fourth side, with its etched title and feather, that is probably the highlight of the set.

But six years on from Psychedelic Pill and four from A Letter Home, Young has still to recapture either the seething energy, or the aching fragility that allows those albums to rate so high in his overall canon.  Rather, The Visitor is one more in that grisly corpus of Neil-by-numbers releases, rockin’ for the sake of rock, and destined to gather dust alongside all the other Young albums you’ve picked up over time, that get played once or twice and then filed.

It has its moments.  “Carnival,” on side two, is genuinely affecting; and “Change of Heart,” one song earlier, will grow into a favorite.  But the band sound even more lumpy than they did on their last shared excursion, and Young himself sounds utterly unconvinced, even by his own words.

None of which really means much because, when you consider how many times Young has been written off as a spent force (“he’ll never top Harvest, you know”), only to bounce back with a career-best monster (Le Noise negated every nadir the early 2000s heaped upon us), The Visitor is certainly just another blip.  But what a blippity blip it is.  Bring back the Shocking Pinks.

Finally, Country Music Heritage – the Legacy of CMH Records is, as its title suggests, a flick through the doughty roots and bluegrass independent’s back pages.  It’s odd, though.  Though actual discographical information (recording and release dates, for example) is scant, the liners suggest the album concentrates on a full near two decade span, 1975 to 1992,

An eye on your own old album collection, however, will make it clear that the emphasis is far narrower than that, and it’s probably all the better accordingly.

The Pinnacle Boys’ “Charlotte’s Web,” opening the fourteen song LP, hails from 1980; contributions from Curly Seckler and the Nashville Grass, Felice & Bordeaux Bryant, the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Osborne Brothers (a glorious “Keep Me From Blowing Away”) ans Jim and Jesse likewise.  We fall back a year for Don Reno and Tennessee Cut Up’s haunting “My Arms are Empty and Cold,” while “House of the Rising Sun” captures Lester Flatt on stage in 1978, with all the punch and power you’d expect.

Of the label’s earlier prolusions there are none, so look elsewhere for that terrific take on “Old Slewfoot” that crowns the Smith Bros Bluegrass Orchestra’s one and only album.  And the later years, too, receive nary a nod, being largely confined to Jimmy Gaudreau and Bela Fleck’s “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss me When I’m Gone” – which if memory serves, was recorded in the early nineties, but didn’t see daylight until a 2000s compilation.

But while we can harp on about the omissions, the actual contents lend the collection a cohesion and strength that the stated brief might have struggled to equal.  Now let’s hope that there’s many more in the pipeline.

And finally… Reviewing the first Roxy Music LP back in 1972, one of the UK music papers described it, not unreasonably, as “the answer to a maiden’s prayers.”  Forty-six years on, those prayers have been answered again.

Unquestionably one of the greatest debut albums of the decade, if not the age, Roxy Music is reborn today (Virgin/Universal) as a positively stunning box set – three CDs, a 5.1 mix, a DVD of period TV, a hardback book of largely unpublished photos and ancient memorabilia, plus what looks like the entire photo session for that cover shot.  Forget “super deluxe,” Roxy Music might well be the most beautiful box set of all time.

It comes at a hefty price, though.  Online forums have already made their feelings known about an RRP that pushes $45 per disc, asking whether any new release is worth paying that much.  Particularly when you think that King Crimson – a band, let us not forget, that Bryan Ferry tried to join, but failed – routinely assemble 20+ disc boxes that cost less than this.

Neither are its contents flawless.  Audiophiles bemoan the use of the 1999 remaster of the original album, when a superior remaster has since appeared. Archivists will be disappointed to find the quality of the TV appearances is no better than it was in the days of VHS.  Brits resent the use of the American version of the album, with “Virginia Plain” (a non-LP single elsewhere) dropped obtrusively onto side one, and we all regret that its b-side, “The Numberer,” was left off altogether.

Collectors wonder why a disc of 1972 BBC John Peel sessions omits a frankly staggering twelve minute version of “If There Is Something,” then truncates the In Concert radio show as well.  And archaeologists highlight the absence of two of the six tracks present on Roxy’s first demo.

Well, you win some, you lose some.  For what we do get is, for the most part, spectacular.  Maybe Steve Wilson’s 5.1 remixes are not to everyone’s taste – too cautious, too subtle, whatever – but he is the current go-to guy for period art rock, and this is as good as any he’s done.

But the disc of BBC radio sessions, none of which have ever enjoyed official release before, is magnificent, delivered with a fidelity that makes the existing bootleg recordings sound like a band mucking around in a barn, while some guy pretends to be a singer.

Which is more or less word-for-word how journalist Richard Williams (who also penned the reissue’s accompanying essay) summed up the band’s first demo tape, back in 1971, and which is also exposed to daylight for the first time here.  But don’t let that put you off.  Roxy’s potential, and the strength of the songs, was apparent even then, and if the acoustics here are less than perfect, that’s just the nature of the beast.

What Roxy had back then is difficult to quantify.  For sure, they were the best dressed band of the age, making everyone else – Bowie, Bolan, Slade, the lot – look like bricklayers on a night out at the pub.  And, in time, we would grow accustomed to their penchant for pretty songs warped by ugly effects and off-kilter horns.

But Ferry’s voice was a thing of wonder, stretching and straining for pastures untouched… you hear that on the Peel sessions, the boy really taking chances with his tonsils. And with the rest of the band seemingly conjuring whatever they wanted to, regardless of what the tune demanded, the ultimate perfection of Roxy’s music still feels like they were flying by the seat of their pants.

Half a disc of album out-takes, effectively adding up to an entire “alternate” LP, demonstrate this, a spyglass on the sessions that may not add to our appreciation of the finished thing, but certainly repays repeated listens.  Then you jump to the latest tracks on the album, four live cuts recorded for French TV at the end of 1972, and see how the band’s improvisational instincts remained in play, even after vinyl set the songs in stone.

Roxy were pop stars by then, with hit singles and albums, and their faces on a myriad magazine covers (again, see the book for examples).  But they remained maverick mutants from a Martian music school, and this was their first transmission.  Next stop… For Your Pleasure?

Dave Thompson

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