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Vinyl Cave: Illuminations by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Legendary singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has maintained an amazingly wide-ranging career in music, art, education and activism for more than four decades -- including a period of "retirement" to raise a family starting in the late '70s. Often controversial for her protest songs in the 1960s, her own recordings have been mostly absent from the radio in the United States since that time. While many younger music fans may not recognize her name, most have probably heard oft-covered songs like the antiwar anthem "Universal Soldier" and "Until it's Time for You to Go," or even the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman, "Up Where We Belong," co-written with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings.

In her online biography, Sainte-Marie maintains the reason she largely disappeared as a performer from the mainstream of American music in the late '60s was due to a blacklist begun during the Johnson administration. It's an idea that makes some sense, considering stories that have come out in recent years of other "controversial" subjects like John Lennon being under surveillance during the Nixon years. However, a couple of Sainte-Marie's early '70s albums did make the lower reaches of the charts and a single even hit the Top 40 ("Mister Can't You See," in 1972). Before then, though, was an album that may not have charted simply because it was Sainte-Marie's second stylistic diversion in a row: Illuminations, from 1969.

As with many '60s songwriters who began in the folk tradition her style had changed with the decade, moving from largely acoustic guitar-based albums into a somewhat more orchestrated sound by her fourth album, Fire & Fleet & Candlelight. After that, Sainte-Marie moved a bit ahead of the curve followed by many other folkies, making a full-on country album in Nashville in 1968. That turned out to be a brief trip, as demonstrated by the much more rock based, and at times nearly psychedelic, sound of Illuminations.

Anchored by the use of an early synthesizer, Illuminations has a lot of weird electronic sounds used both as a base for some tracks and as special effects linking some songs. I'm guessing the synth was also used in some way to create the jarring intro and outro portions of the album, with Sainte-Marie's voice chopped into bits as it fades in at the beginning and out at the end with some Leonard Cohen poetry set to her own music.

With its combination of doomy minor key songs with electronic experimentation (such as "The Vampire," sounding like a Child ballad from outer space) and Sainte-Marie still protesting societal wrongs (demonstrated by tracks like "Better To Find Out For Yourself" and "Suffer the Little Children") it's an often dark sounding album, and one that would greatly appeal to fans of folk-psych. Even though there are a few straight acoustic songs here as well, I'm surprised that this album is not more widely regarded as a psych era classic. (Vanguard, 1969)

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