Phil Ochs returned in July of 1968 with his fifth album, Tape From California. It would be the last time that a totally healthy Ochs would enter the studio. The album would continue his turning away from a strict folk sound and find him experimenting with some classical influences and even a little rock ‘n’ roll. It would be the best and most consistent of his releases for the A&M Label.
The lyrics and their accompanying vocals continued his passionate approach. His writing is beautifully poetic in many places yet remained insightful, intelligent and straight forward. He continued to be the conscience of American society and a herald of its decay.
The track that draws immediate attention is the thirteen minute opus “When In Rome.” Here he re-writes and in many ways re-creates the history of The United States while comparing it to the decadence of The Roman Empire. He sings much of the song in the first person. It is a composition ambitious in its scope and dominates one side of the original vinyl release. While it may not be a song that you will want to listen too very often it is unforgettable and ultimately brilliant.
His most well known song from the album was “The War Is Over.” It was an unusual and oddly beautiful creation that criticized the Vietnam War from a unique perspective. It would become another favorite of the protest movement and would keep Ochs in the forefront of that movement which continued to grow as the war expanded.
The title song, “Tape From California,” would find him experimenting successfully with a rock sound. Later in his career he would begin to include more rock ‘n’ roll into his live performances. A counterpoint would be the gentle and in many ways autobiographical folk song, “Joe Hill.” Joan Baez would cut a famous version of this song but I prefer the purity of his original version. Of special note was the guitar playing by folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on this track.
“The Harder They Fall” is one of the few songs by Phil Ochs that is a failure. He over reaches and his use of puns is just too cute.
Tape From California would find Phil Ochs successfully treading the middle ground between his first three folk albums and the over produced Pleasures Of The Harbor. It is probably the best representation of his musical vision during the middle period of his career.