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Phil Ochs' "Farewells and Fantasies"; Reptile Palace Orchestra's "Hwy X."

By Michael Henningsen

JANUARY 5, 1998: 

Alibi "Bigger is Better" Rating Scale:
!!!!!=Hung like a horse
!!!!=Big Johnson
!!!=Hangin'
!!=Teeny weenie
!=Is it in?

Phil Ochs Farewells and Fantasies: The Phil Ochs Collection (Rhino)

Of all the artists who were involved in the creation of the '60s folk movement, Phil Ochs was the least appreciated. His topical songwriting between 1964 and 1967 captured the essence of the political turmoil of the age. Fueled by a heady distaste for the Vietnam War and other corruption in American politics and foreign policy, human rights issues and the complacency carried over from the previous decade, Ochs' songs seethed passion yet were presented as roots music and with enviable theatrical aplomb. Following his move from the folk circles of Greenwich Village in 1967 to Los Angeles, Ochs' songwriting turned more personal and reflective, offering rather deeply poetic testaments to his societal concerns and various inner conflicts. Records from this period in his career--Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape From California, Rehearsals for Retirement, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, etc.--were far less well-received than his earlier, more politically charged work but contained some of the best songs of his all-too-short career.

Ochs hanged himself in 1975, at the peak of the musically tepid '70s, but the music he left behind remains some of the most important of the American folk genre. This three-CD collection, containing 53 tracks from all of Ochs' 11 albums plus four previously unreleased tracks offers a stimulating representation of the two distinct periods of his career: the political years and his more personal era. The set is alive with Ochs' unique sense of humor, adding a contextual elegance to the recordings. Farewells and Fantasies is accompanied by a dense biographical account of Ochs' life and career penned variously by his daughter, Meegan Lee Ochs and Rolling Stone's Mark Kemp and also features many classic photographs from the Michael Ochs Archives. A track-by-track explanation of each song, the period during which it was written and Ochs' mindset at the time from quotes taken during extensive interviews provides an even more detailed foray into the mind and work of the folk legend. More importantly, though, the music contained herein is some of the most vital to have come from one of the most chaotic and revolutionary periods in American history. The folk fan cannot do without it. !!!! (MH)


Reptile Palace Orchestra Hwy X (Omnium Records)

The first time I heard Reptile Palace Orchestra's new Omnium release, Hwy X, I was hooked by their strange and melodious hooks. It was very close to the way I felt when I first listened to 3 Mustaphas 3. Indeed RPO could easily be tagged the American 3 Mustaphas 3 but with mostly female vocals. Wonderfully haunting vocals reminiscent of Johnette Napolitano before all the whiskey and cigarettes, with some backing by Leonard Cohen, a male lead or two of name-the-anonymous-pop-singer and a most singular male lead vocal that induces Doctor Demento flashbacks--though the vocal quality is definitely that of Bobcat Goldthwaite and not of the weird Doctor.

Alternately self described as Balkan Lounge Funk or Elvis + Armenia + Funkedelic + Bulgaria = RPO and described in the Omnium catalog as Balkan lounge big band rock, RPO is all this and more. The more I hear from RPO, the more it sounds like psycho-clown carnival music. As opposed to, well, normal carnival music. But seriously, this band is totally derivative. RPO extract bits and parts from so many musical traditions in a way that is at once totally familiar and completely unique that the derivation is more than welcome. It's like hanging out with a long-lost Eastern European relative. You know the one. middle aged but started the first punk rock band in his tiny mountain village back in the '70s, and now he mixes in the current trends with the traditional music of his childhood and early punk days to keep the grandkids happy. You know. That old guy with bushy ears who barely speaks English but is way hipper than any of your friends. RPO's Hwy X is like that relative. The accent may be a little difficult to decipher at times and everything that's said may not be of immediate interest, but it's definitely worth the time and effort. !!!! 1/2 (AN)


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