Phil Odgers and John Kettle

A couple of introductions before we get to the meat of the review, just in case people are not familiar with any of the main protagonists. Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers is a singer and songwriter for the legendary folk-punk band ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’ and John Kettle is a guitarist and songwriter for Merry Hell, providers of joyful folk-rock.

Phil Ochs was a major singer-songwriter throughout the 60s and into the 70s. A contemporary of Bob Dylan, influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he was viewed as an influential protest singer – though he preferred the term ‘topical’. A complicated man, beset by both artistic frustration and inner demons, plus a destructive relationship with alcohol, Ochs took his own life in 1976 at the age of 35. His Wikipedia entry is recommended for those who wish to find out more. The album cover emulates the iconography of his first LP ‘All The News That’s Fit to Sing’ and the title refers to the district of New York where his sister Sonny lived and his body was found.

According to the accompanying information, the album started as a lockdown project (remember them?) with Mr Odgers having time on his hands and communicating with the outside world through a series of online sessions that gained a worldwide audience. Moving beyond the boundaries of his band’s output, he started to include songs by other artists that had influenced or interested him – these included a number of Phil Ochs covers. Moving along, he decided that these could form the basis of another project and with ‘The Men’ having shared a couple of outings with ‘The Hell’ and wanting a different voice and playing style on board, he approached John, and the positive results are plain for all to hear.

Although this is a collection of Phil Ochs songs, it is more of a celebration of the man and his songs than a simple tribute album, interpreting the songs rather than reproducing them as previously performed – and it is all the better for it. Odgers’ voice suits the material to a tee, and Kettle’s fingerpicking and fretboard artistry adds interest and contrast to Phil’s more rhythmic approach to his instrument, without ever distracting from the strength and beauty of the lyrical content.

Whilst Ochs was known mainly as a protest singer, the album encompasses a range of his songs, from the out and out political statements to the more delicate, introspective musings on his own life and of the human condition – he shares some profound insights and sadly, many of his social observations are as relevant today as they were 50 plus years ago. Choosing standout tracks is a difficult task, as each repeated listening throws up new insights into what on the surface is a straightforward set of acoustic songs, originally delivered by one man and his guitar. However, ‘Hunger and Cold’, ‘The Flower Lady’ and ‘Changes’ are fabulous versions of his lesser known songs – the latter being covered by both Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, which is proof enough of quality should you require it.

If you are unfamiliar with the world of Ochs, then this may act as an introduction and a prompt to find out more, for those already appreciative, then they will appreciate both the sentiment and the commemoration of an underappreciated yet much missed towering talent. Whichever of the two camps you fall into – make sure you have a listen to this album – you will thank yourself repeatedly.



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