“Pleasures Of The Harbor” by Phil Ochs - album review

features in: Album Chart of 1967Album Chart of the Decade: 1960s

TJR says

Eschewing his one man with acoustic guitar approach evidenced hitherto on his 3 albums for Elektra, the 26-year-old topical singer opted for a radical change in 1967, facilitated by a switch to a new label, A&M Records, and a move away from New York to Los Angeles. In Phil’s mind, he was lagging behind in his friendly rivalry with Bob Dylan, which had been ongoing since the early 60s. From that viewpoint alone, “Pleasures of the Harbor” was a complete success – not only was it every bit the equal of Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” from this year, it was a leader’s album which sounded wholly unique. The sardonic wit and social commentary remains in place, but paired with the arrangements of Ian Freebairn-Smith and the input of classically-trained pianist Lincoln Mayorga, there’s a freshness which runs the gamut all the way from the perkiness of Dixieland Jazz to the stately elegance of the traditional band’s funereal march. No matter your taste, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the vision and the high quality that prevails throughout.

Early album highlight “Flower Lady” warns that to be self-absorbed is not sexy – lovers, poets, painters, students, soldiers, the elderly, the drunks – none are safe from Phil’s subtle wrath on this most beautiful of songs. Don’t let that poor lady hobble away, ignored – little actions can make a huge difference around about you. Equally beautiful is “I’ve Had Her” which is borderline contemporary classical and seems to play out some kind of drama which warns a man not to lose his mind over the latest long-legged lovely walking by; beauty’s only skin deep. The egotistical emptiness of the middle-class party provides some great chuckles on “The Party” on side 2, with the cheapest line “The party must be over, even the losers are leaving” reminding us of Phil’s winning black humour. The title track appears second-last. For centuries, sailors have been finding pleasure in the harbours of the world. Brel’s “Amsterdam brutes” of ’64 have been replaced here by Och’s sensitive types of ’67: “In the room dark and dim, touch of skin. He asks her of her name, she answers with no shame, and not a sense of sin. ‘Til the fingers draw the blinds, sip of wine. The cigarette of doubt, the candle is blown out, the darkness is so kind.” It’s a full-on cinema-production in one song – and an old black n white weepy at that.

Up and coming West Coast experimentalist Joseph Byrd was invited by Ochs and producer Larry Marks to arrange “The Crucifixion”, the album’s parting statement. Byrd recalled: “Phil asked me to arrange the song. I really didn't think it should be arranged, because its power is in the simplicity of the lyric. But he wanted the kitchen sink: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Cage, electronic sound.” The resulting arrangement included brass instruments, flutes, strings, organ, electric harpsichord, percussion, backward tapes, and electronic oscillations. I agree with Joseph; such is the strength of the song itself that it could have worked with or without such radical treatment, but it’s excellent in any event, and is the album’s highlight. The song, regarded by Ochs as his finest, is about the rise and fall of a hero, and the public's role in creating, destroying, and deifying its heroes. Classlessness and crass hypocrisies are called-out on my favourite verse: “They say they can't believe it, it's a sacreligious shame, now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game? But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall. How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small. Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all. And do you have a picture of the pain?” Society was cut down to size right there. In this most experimental of years, no-one outdid Phil Ochs for ambition and imagination. This was yet another LP that was criminally overlooked at the time. Time outs them all in the end though, and “Pleasures of the Harbor” has proudly and resolutely stood the test.

The Jukebox Rebel

A1 [03:23] 6.8.png Phil Ochs - Cross My Heart (Phil Ochs) Folk Rock / Americana
A2 [06:06] 8.7.png Phil Ochs - Flower Lady (Phil Ochs) Folk
A3 [03:37] 7.0.png Phil Ochs - Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends (Phil Ochs) Jazz
A4 [08:03] 8.0.png Phil Ochs - I’ve Had Her (Phil Ochs) Songwriter
A5 [05:17] 6.3.png Phil Ochs - Miranda (Phil Ochs) Jazz
B1 [07:57] 6.5.png Phil Ochs - The Party (Phil Ochs) Jazz
B2 [08:05] 8.1.png Phil Ochs - Pleasures Of The Harbor (Phil Ochs) Songwriter
B3 [08:45] 8.8.png Phil Ochs - The Crucifixion (Phil Ochs) Folk

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