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Vinyl Cave: Pleasures of the Harbor by Phil Ochs

One of the cruelest ironies of the meanderingly brilliant and star-crossed career of Phil Ochs is that, years after his suicide, he's still accused of only being a follower of trends set by Bob Dylan. That supposition always makes me wonder if those critics have ever really sat down and listened to the two artists' contemporary works back to back. There are certainly comparable aspects of for each songwriter's protest folk era, but even the argument breaks down a bit in context; Ochs' debut All The News That's Fit to Sing came out in spring 1964, only a couple months before Dylan began his abandonment of protest folk with Another Side of Bob Dylan.

If Ochs were simply following Dylan, why did he release two more albums of acoustic, mostly protest songs in 1965 and 1966? It's also hard to reconcile much of a follower attitude on Ochs' part in the wake of a famous mid-'60s incident in which he had the temerity to criticize one of the Blonde on Blonde songs, leading Dylan to kick him out of a car; the two would not reconcile for many years.

The copycat conundrum collapses completely when confronted by Ochs' fourth LP, Pleasures of the Harbor, possibly the songwriter's most controversial disc, even among converts. It is an interesting coincidence that both Ochs and Dylan passed the last half of 1966 and most of 1967 without releasing new material, but their efforts on re-emerging couldn't be much different. Dylan retrenched into acoustic folk with John Wesley Harding, still weaving somewhat opaque word jungles but once again with a decidedly protest-y edge. Released a bit ahead of Dylan's disc in late 1967, Ochs' Pleasures has often been dismissed as folk-rock; even Billboard only acknowledged it at the time as a "slightly different" sound for Ochs. In reality, Pleasures of the Harbor is far afield of anything either artist released before or after -- and it certainly sounds absolutely nothing like Dylan's previous disc, Blonde on Blonde.

Pleasures of the Harbor's lead off track is an immediate announcement that Ochs has moved beyond acoustic guitars in a studio setting for his first disc on the A&M label. "Cross My Heart" may even go a bit too far in trying to distance Ochs from folk; the busy chamber pop arrangement packs in strings, horns, harpsichord, electric bass and multitracked vocals. However, the track certainly catches the ear and makes the listener aware Ochs is up to something. It was also the album's lead-off single alongside the next track, "The Flower Lady," a song which had already been covered by British duo Peter and Gordon in 1966. While "Flower Lady" also features a baroque pop arrangement, Ochs changes things up for the next track (and second single), "Outside a Small Circle of Friends."

In retrospect, it's amazing that A&M decided to release "Outside a Small Circle of Friends" as a single. The song is a blackly sarcastic response to public apathy wrapped in a jaunty music hall-style package, and was inspired by a notorious murder that a number of people witnessed but did nothing to stop. It's far removed from what was happening on the pop charts at the time ... and still improbably started to take off on the radio in Los Angeles, before programmers got leery of the reference to marijuana in the lyrics. According to Richie Unterberger's liner notes from a CD reissue, A&M pressed three different versions of the single to try and keep it on the air, but couldn't regain the lost momentum. Several decades down the road, the song has lost none of its ability to make a listener uncomfortable, and was a welcome shot of Ochsian protest on the album.

Continuing its diverse journey, the first side concludes with the lengthy takedown song "I've Had Her" and one of the album's happier moments, the Dixieland jazz "Miranda."

Side two contains a trio of tour de force moments that sound as if they could have each been beamed from a different universe. First up is "The Party," one of Ochs' snarkiest (and funniest) numbers, accompanied by a skittery cocktail jazz arrangement with hilariously manic piano by Lincoln Mayorga. Next is the album's title track, one of the more direct lines to the folk tradition on the disc. A tale basically about a lonely sailor on shore leave, I've always thought the baroque pop arrangement by Ian Freebairn-Smith on this song is spot-on, particularly the occasionally discordant moments that set the stage for the album's final song.

One may guess from the title "The Crucifixion" that Ochs was going for another polarizing moment here. That's not a bad guess, but it's not necessarily the lyrical content (an allegory about the rise and fall of heroes, most often assumed to be about JFK) that caused the most controversy. Ochs closed his boldest musical statement by really getting out there with an essentially musique concrete arrangement by future United States of America co-leader Joseph Byrd. No matter how many times I've heard this song, the music still creeps me right the hell out, to put it bluntly. Especially on headphones, Byrd's arrangement can give the listener a nearly seasick feeling as parts of the dense arrangement seemingly speed up and down independently of each other and Ochs vocal, which chugs along inexorably to its denouement as if ignoring the surrounding chaos. Love it or hate it, there's nothing else like it. As an experiment one night, I played it at bar time to close out a DJ set, and it certainly garnered some interesting reactions from the late night stragglers.

This may all sound like a mess, but it's a beautiful, intentional one, and somehow the whole thing hangs together quite cohesively. But although A&M put some effort into promotion, Pleasures of the Harbor crept no higher than No. 168 on Billboard's album charts in early 1968. Unfortunately, that would be Ochs' only chart LP on A&M, despite four worthy follow-ups -- the last, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, didn't even see release in the U.S., only escaping in Canada several years after it was recorded.

Lack of major success and critical indifference be damned: Pleasures of the Harbor has grown over the years to be my favorite Ochs disc, one that only gets better with age and rises in stature against that year's other many noteworthy releases. Along with his other A&M albums, it has also remained shamefully out of print in any format (besides MP3s) since Collector's Choice released them on CD in 2000. (A&M LP-133/SP-4133, 1967)

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