I came to Phil Ochs late, only because of the recommendation of a friend. (Thanks Derek!) Before that I had heard of his infamous live album, but that’s it. So this is my second Ochs album and, as usual, I am listening to his catalogue out of order. I mention all of this because my appreciation of Ochs is likely coloured by how late I came to him, compared to many of his contemporaries.
Ochs has a decent enough sense of melody. Like Dylan, he seems to lift at least some of them from older songs – whether or not they’re public domain, or were at the time, I haven’t bothered to investigate. But, still, you need good enough melodies when it’s just you and your guitar and he has them.
But it’s his lyrics which are the real draw. I read that this album is more sophisticated lyrically than his debut in part because he’s not as obvious about his political leanings – though he sure is obvious about those – and because he supposedly strays from the party doctrine of some of his most political supporters. Regardless, he can write a biting lyric, which is the real draw, I think. He has some pretty great lines on this record, some of which feel like they are worthy of Dylan’s best early protest songs (before he cared more about poetry). But, be forewarned, this is political folk music; Ochs is a songwriter who wants to get his point across. So if you like that, you’ll like Ochs. But he’s not the most poetic of lyricists. (To put it another way, we can sort of think of him as a pre-Dylan lyricist as opposed to a post-Dylan lyricist.)
It’s just Ochs and his guitar, which is what I think a lot of people want in a folk record. And, in that sense, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s also relatively out-of-step with the trend of the time, which was to put rock instruments on your folk songs. (Dylan was doing it obviously, as was Fred Neil and numerous other songwriters. And Tom Wilson was about to forcefully reunite Simon & Garfunkel by doing that to them without their permission.) It’s kind of nice to listen to a record that wasn’t trend-hopping and is content just to present the songs in their purest form. It works.
One advantage of doing this is that the album has not dated much beyond its lyrical content because it’s just a voice and guitar, so there are no tell-tale signs of mid ’60s production cliches.
It’s a good set of well-written political songs from a man considered a master of the form.