A Folk Classic Reissued By Cisco Music

A cold-steel stoic intensity inhabits the faces of Canadian folksingers Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker on the cover of their 1965 Vanguard album Northern Journey. The photo’s low light and blue cast amplify the title’s message. Combine the front cover with the scholarly ethno-musicalogical liner notes you’ll find on the back—perhaps a reflexive reaction to the commercialization of folk music back then and an attempt to separate Ian and Sylvia from many trite, packaged folk acts of the time—and you have an almost forbiddingly chilly surface.

What’s in the grooves though, while sometimes mannered and formal, is for the most part warm and inviting, while still reflecting the very different musical sensibilities of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia compared to what emanated from the Appalachian hills.

The We Five had a Top 40 hit with the opening tune, Sylvia Fricker’s melodic “You Were On My Mind.” Ironically Ian and Sylvia’s version here, redolent with guitars, acoustic bass and the intensely mellifluous autoharp is far richer, warmer and more inviting than the stripped down, cool one that become a hit single. The hit-maker producer took the song’s sad lyrics literally while Ian and Sylvia provide a startling contrast with an almost lusty invitation to pain.

The song continues to soothe and excite the senses almost 40 years on, thanks to both the instrumentation and the spectacularly pristine recording which is even better served on this reissue than on the black label Vanguard “Stereolab” original, which was monumental to begin with. The album opener will give you goosebumps all the time, every time. You’ll just have to get used to the unusual choice of putting Ian in one channel and Sylvia in the other. That they manage to blend from across the channels is a testament to the sublime effect of their combined voices. Sylvia’s has an icy, piercing purity, while Ian’s is rich, round and mellow. “Texas Rangers,” a hard edged history of a battle between Native Americans and government soldiers is just the two of them singing a cappella with a touch of echo behind to bind them, yet they fulfill the narrative completely and fill the room.

There’s not a bad tune on the 14 song set, with the other originals, Ian’s rousing “Four Rode By,” and his semi-autobiographical “Some Day Soon,”—reminiscent of something Gram Parsons might have come up with—standing out from the pack.

Capping off a collection of timeless tunes, wonderfully arranged and performed is a recording of acoustic stringed instruments that is among the most effective I’ve ever heard. The feel of pick on strings is palpable, with a nice sense of the acoustic. Ian and Sylvia are closely miked, yet the recording manages to project each in three dimensions. The remastering by Kevin Gray and Cisco’s Robert Pincus has a transparency and clarity lacking on the original, while maintaining the latter’s inviting warmth and space. A winning reissue with enduring musical value and sonic brilliance, that’s well worth your while.

(Editor's note: Cisco informs me that due to production issues, the release of this title has been delayed. We'll let you know when it becomes available.)

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Those songs will actually make you realize your past experienced. Especially if the singer are all good. - Scott Safadi