Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Best of Ian & Sylvia (Columbia, 1974)

Despite the misleading title, The Best of Ian & Sylvia is not, in fact, a compilation of their greatest hits. This two-LP set, however, does compile the two albums that they did for Columbia Records, Ian & Sylvia (1971) and You Were on My Mind (1972). These were the last records that they released as a duo. Neither sold well, and they were reissued as a two-fer in 1974 in the format presented here. By the following year, they had divorced, both professionally and personally. Even though these LPs were recorded toward the end of their career as a husband-wife team, for the most part, both hold up rather well and sound considerably more inspired than one would expect. At this point in their history, Ian and Sylvia seemed to have developed a workable formula that allowed them to combine the country and country rock elements of Nashville and Great Speckled Bird along with the pop moves of Lovin' Sound and the baroque orchestrated folk prevalent on So Much for Dreaming.


Not to be confused with their like-titled debut for Vanguard, Ian & Sylvia shows the pair comfortably adapting to the 1970s without completely abandoning their traditional roots, as many former folkies turned singer-songwriters had done. The agreeable interpretation of David Wiffen's "More Often Than Not" pretty much sets the tone for both of these albums, instrumentally speaking - acoustic guitars with an electric rhythm section supplemented by just the right amount of strings and steel guitar. Another cover, "Creators of Rain" (originally performed by Smokey & his Sister) is more of a team effort with Sylvia sharing the lead vocal duties, while "Summer Wages" finds Ian revisiting and improving upon a tune that had originally appeared on So Much for Dreaming.
Sylvia's lovely voice graces "Midnight" and is nicely complemented by the dobro playing of either Joe Renzetti or Stu Schaff. "Barney" is a touching tribute to an old horse that has to be put out of its misery. An affecting performance to say the least, you might want to skip this one if you have a soft spot for animals because the sorrow-tinged lyrics are rather graphic. "Some Kind of Fool" comes off as a nice straight-ahead country song, and despite the somewhat silly title, "The Shark and the Cockroach" puts the rock in country rock. "Last Lonely Eagle" features Ian and Sylvia's vocal harmonies at their most exquisite and is an excellent take on the New Riders of the Purple Sage's better-known original version. Although these two Canadians easily could have embarrassed themselves doing a musical narrative of an old slave's emancipation, "Lincoln Freed Me Today" (written by David Patton and also recorded by Joan Baez on the Blessed Are LP from the same year) succeeds by virtue of their sensitive but not overwrought performance. The string of excellent covers continues with Sylvia's haunting reading of Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death" before the album closes, appropriately enough, with an outstanding original by Sylvia titled "Everybody Has to Say Goodbye." (For those with a preference for compact discs, I recommend seeking out Beginning of the End, which contains Ian & Sylvia in its entirety plus four bonus tracks unavailable elsewhere. More info: here.)

The follow-up, You Were on My Mind was actually attributed to "Ian & Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird" and features the second version of that group, who toured with Ian and Sylvia in the early 1970s but (with the exception of one holdover, drummer N.D. Smart) did not participate in the recording of the Great Speckled Bird album. (Again, more info: here.) I have to give the edge to this fine Canadian country rock outfit over the Nashville studio musicians who play on Ian & Sylvia and help make this album slightly the superior of the two. Things get off to a rousing start in which the duo out-Band the Band with a superb rendition of Robbie Robertson's "Get Up Jake." Unlike their first record for Columbia, which was more reliant on outside writers, the only other track not penned by Ian and/or Sylvia on You Were on My Mind is a pretty rocking version of the traditional "Lonesome Valley." "Old Cheyenne" and "Antelope" are Western-themed numbers evocative of the Great Plains, while the tastefully orchestrated "Miriam" serves as a showcase for Sylvia's graceful vocals. Even though I miss the original's trademark autoharp, this reimagined version of "You Were on My Mind" acquits itself rather convincingly as a twangy country tune. The all-but-a-cappella "Joshua" provides another opportunity for the couple to show off their vocal harmonies just as "You're Not Alone Anymore" exhibits Ben Keith's considerable skills on steel guitar. "The Beginning of the End," which foreshadows Ian and Sylvia's impending split, does both. With the exception of the prominent electric bass, "Salmon in the Sea" hearkens back to the sound of the early I&S albums on Vanguard. I'm not sure who it might be dedicated to, but "Bill (Won't You Please Take Me Home)" features Sylvia singing her heart out on the song that not only concludes the LP, but also one that marks the unfortunate end of Ian and Sylvia as a recording act.

Ian & Sylvia (1971)
1. More Often Than Not
2. Creators of Rain
3. Summer Wages
4. Midnight
5. Barney
6. Some Kind of Fool
7. Shark and the Cockroach
8. Last Lonely Eagle
9. Lincoln Freed Me
10. Needle of Death
11. Everybody Has to Say Goodbye

You Were on My Mind (1972)
1. Get Up Jake
2. Old Cheyenne
3. Antelope
4. Miriam
5. Lonesome Valley
6. You Were on My Mind
7. Joshua
8. You're Not Alone Anymore
9. Salmon in the Sea
10. The Beginning of the End
11. Bill (Won't You Please Take Me Home)


  1. vinylrippasswordrecord-fiend.blogspot.com

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  2. this is fantastic - you treat us very well Record Fiend!

    Can't wait to hear this ...

    Another salute from Canada! Thank you ...

  3. @ Anonymous,

    Always happy to help out my friends from the North. Enjoy.


  4. you previously spurred me to re-examine ian & sylvia's 'nashville' in a previous post. and now this! i haven't seen either of these two recordings in quite some time. i've always enjoyed 'great speckled bird' on bearsville, but i never had the chance to hear 'you were on my mind' while it was still in print. thanks for the opportunity to do so today. i'm much obliged.

  5. Hey, you promised to upload the second Great Speckled Bird album, and now you did! Thanks so much for this. An extra bonus is the fact that it's a very good album, and a great quality rip. Please keep up the good work - your informative notes are an education in themselves.

    Best wishes,

    Joe in Dublin.

  6. I truly appreciate your comments, Joe.



  7. Thanks a lot for posting my request. I appreciate it very much...

  8. Loving all this Ian and Sylvia. Thank you so much ..

    Any chance you've got Play One More lurking around somewhere?


  9. @ Atlas,

    It's always nice to hear from a fellow Ian and Sylvia fan. Yes, I do have Play One More in my collection. I just reviewed Early Morning Rain , so I'll make your request the next Ian and Sylvia album that I post, probably sometime this spring. Stay tuned.


  10. I knew about the MGM stuff but was unaware of this. Thanks so much.

  11. Ian & Sylvia were not the only act on Columbia whose personal and professional partnership fizzled out while under contract to the label. The same can also be said of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett who signed with the label not long after they had a minor hit with their cover of the Dave Mason composition "Only You Know and I Know" - and divorced not long after the ink dried on their Columbia contract.

    I do have one 45 out of I&S's first Columbia LP - "Creators of Rain" / "Summer Wages" (4-45430).