Review: 50 years later, Ochs’ ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’ is worth a second look
Though folk singer Phil Ochs only lived to the age of 35, he was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1960s.
His manic optimism reached its peak in 1967 with the release of his third studio album “Pleasures of the Harbor.”
With minor exceptions, it was Ochs’ first work to feature dense instrumentation and complex arrangements.
Despite being on his setlists for only two years, the songs on the album represented a complete tonal shift for Ochs’ music.
The album starts off with “Cross My Heart,” a bombastic track that does nothing to convince its listener of anything.
Ochs’ limited skill as a musician proved to be a shortcoming on the album, so much so that his guitar playing was removed from several tracks or not even recorded to begin with.
The orchestra follows Ochs’ voice like a dog, using an ostinato pattern that renders a hypnotic groove amplified by how lost the vocals get in the course of the song.
Except for one non-album single, Ochs’ music is based on the acoustic guitar.
His political songs of protest spoke to a generation in ways songs by Bob Dylan didn’t quite do.
Ochs could also write songs like “Changes,” which appeared on his 1966 live album, “In Concert,” and “Flower Lady,” the second track on “Pleasures of the Harbor.”
The strings and piano that dominate “Flower Lady” complement the already pastoral song in ways that a guitar simply cannot.
This left Ochs, not a particularly great singer, with the space to focus on his delivery in ways he never did before or would after.
The album was his attempt to do something he never did before: make a mark the way his first album had not.
Ochs was convinced the album would be a hit, but both the sales and reviews were a flop. The closest he got to a hit was with a single that did not progress far before being shelved from play.
“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” could have been a hit. It was political and absurd, but not in an obvious way.
It was about apathy in many forms, but mainly it stemmed from the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect.
The song was straight up Dixieland Jazz, right down to the banjo and the tack piano, but one reference to marijuana halted the song’s progress.
The offensive line in question: “Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer, but a friend of ours was captured and they give him thirty years.”
With a runtime of just over 50 minutes, it is hard not to see the project as being either self indulgent or bloated. The album is undeniably both, but it’s only until the song, “I’ve Had Her,” that those notions really sink in.
The song is a downward spiral that drags on for eight minutes and arguably features Ochs’ most sexist lyrics.
If the listeners can get through the depressed mess, they are greeted at the other end by ‘Miranda,” a song that takes every inclination towards Dixieland and dials it up.
The song serves no real purpose except as a palate cleanser to the previous track.
In the final three songs of the album, not a single track is under eight minutes long, and they deserve to be as long as they are.
After releasing his first live album, Ochs decided to switch labels, which gave him access to musicians like Lincoln Mayorga, a talented pianist of the highest caliber.
Without Mayorga’s saloon inspired tack piano, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” would not be the song it is, but it is on “The Party” where Mayorga’s greatest contribution is.
From the perspective of a lounge piano player, “The Party” documents an increasing debauched dinner party. It features some of Ochs’ best work lyrically, but what really is the icing on the cake is the intentionally bad piano supplies by Mayorga.
Mayorga presents deformed and mangled takes on a number of standards such as “Stardust.”
The song is barren outside of the piano, a near jazz trio works away as the titular party gets more absurd until Ochs lets out, “The party must be over, even the losers are leaving. But just one doubt is nagging at my caustic mind: so I snuck up close behind me and I gave myself a kiss, and I led myself to the mirror to expose what I had missed.
There I saw a laughing maniac who was writing songs like this,” but soon after the piano takes over again and noodles itself into nothingness.
With that comes the album’s title track, a song inspired by “A Long Voyage Home,” a film starring John Wayne.
“Pleasures of the Harbor” is a song that demands to be used as the soundtrack to a film, no, an epic miniseries that wins all the awards. However, it is not. It is just the title track to a bipolar folk singer’s overblown departure from folk music after being ridiculed as being a little more than a journalist.
That is not to say the song is awful; it and the album’s “Crucifixion” are some of the best music made in the 1960s.
Of course the album is not “Sgt. Pepper’s,” but even “Sgt. Pepper’s” isn’t what people think of it as.
Few people even bother to think about “Pleasures of the Harbor” or Ochs in general, and to each their own, but maybe now, 50 years later, is the time to give the album its due.
Especially the sampling of looping technique, which strikes as both terrifying and hopeful.
Ochs may have lost his hope for America the following year, but there is still hope for a new generation.
Or as Ochs put it in his tribute to Jesus, JFK and MLK, known as “The Crucifixion”:
“And the night comes again to the circle studded sky; The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie; ‘Till the universe explodes as a falling star is raised; Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed; But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze; With the speed of insanity, then he dies.”