Sunday, August 03, 2008

Buffy Sainte-Marie - Illuminations (1969) - More Ramblings

Here, this time I made sure to take photos of my copy of Illuminations on vinyl, front and back sides. I'll actually have time to go into detail on this album, one of the true lost gems of the '60s folk-rock era.

A bit of a backstory. I've been curious about Buffy, since I see her albums at the Uptown Cheapo every time I visit, square in the folk music section, just past Peter, Paul & Mary. I also remember her from Sesame Street many eons ago, but for the life of me I could never remember any of her music. I'm one of those cranky Gen-Xers who came of age on a steady diet of hip hop, punk, thrash metal, and my beloved Seattle Grunge. Acoustic folk singers from the 1960's are a tough sell to kids like me; we want lots of noise and lots of attitude. The only folkies I could listen to during my 20s was Ani Difranco (and Dylan, of course, but he hasn't been classified as "folk" since Kennedy was president), and she still remains one of my generation's icons.

It's only now, in my 30's, that I opened up enough to appreciate good 'ol folk, acoustic Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary and Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. Pete Seeger, Woody Gutherie, that sort of thing. But, still, my heart lies with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Pearl Jam. My ideal folkie remains Ani; that's my idea of a folk singer, all passion and attitude. She's just at home with an old guitar as with, oh, The White Stripes.

Which brings us to Buffy. Not that lame-ass tv show about the blonde vampire hunter....yuck. Boring. I'm talking about the Buffy with the dark hair and mean, pissed-off, take-no-prisoners vibe. She is the angriest protest singer I've ever heard. Clearly, in the folk music realm, Buffy Sainte-Marie was the Black Sabbath of her field.

On Friday, I found a website that offered samples from her albums of the '60s and '70s, and this was really my first chance to check the songs out. I was pretty thouroughly blown away right from the start. After work I scoured past the usual record store haunts and ran away with four albums. Sooner or later, I'll go back to complete the heist. If you live in the Twin Cities, you better move fast.

This album we're looking at is Buffy's sixth studio lp, Illuminations, from 1969. Like many of her peers, she began with acoustic folk and evolved to embrace the electric rock sound of the '60s. So experimentation was the rule of the day. Even so, I can't imagine too many fans expecting this sudden shot out of left field. Heck, Buffy's fifth album was pure-country. How does she follow that up? With a wild, ecclectic, and surreal post-psychedelic lp.

Illuminations is the only album in BSM's catalog that sounds remotely like this. It is a swirling magic storm of sounds and hums, electronic pulses and wailing guitars and fluttering ballads. It's easy to think of it as a psychedelic rock album circa 1967, but I think it cuts much deeper than this. It's much more like an art-school project, with one foot in rock and folk, and the other in Pink Floyd.

The electronic effects are all processed from Buffy's voice or guitar. It's a remarkable feat as you travel through the album; the goal apparantly was to pull as many different sounds as possible from the keyboards. Dark Side of the Moon comes to mind. '90s trip-hop and electonica also comes to mind. This doesn't feel like an album that's 40 years old. It sounds new. Very new and very much ahead of its time.

The songs on Illuminations veer back and forth between acoustic folk and balls-out-loaded heavy rock. It sounds less like Jefferson Airplane and more like Babes in Toyland. Yeah, that's the ticket. Buffy definitely has that punk attitude. She doesn't dance around things. She doesn't address militarism, oppression, or reckless consumer capitalism with pretty metaphors and sugar-coated melodies to sucker the grown-ups. Naw, this ain't Peter, Paul & Mary by any stretch. It's more like a punch to the gut. It's totally Sabbath. Buffy Sainte-Marie is the folk singer headbangers can get into. She is the equal to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez; she is also the spiritual mother to Rage Against the Machine.

I've had this thought in my head all weekend long: BSM really should cut an album with Rage. That is the perfect fit, I swear. I understand she's making a comeback album, after a long sabbatical from the music scene (where she migrated into the visual arts). I fear it will be the same watered-down, milquetoast, aging Baby Boomer product, aimed at boring, lifeless 50-somethings. But Buffy was never really part of her era; she was too raw, too honest, too emotional, too loud. Her true peers hail from the punk rock generation....Patti Smith...Ani Difranco...the Riot Grrls....Seattle Grunge....Rage...The White Stripes...Somebody in the know seriously needs to bring Tom Morello over to her house with a pair of guitars, one acoustic, one electric.

I'm not sure if I'm making the right case for Illuminations. It's not a heavy metal album. It's definitely in the folk-and-rock vein, and there are many many quiet melodic moments to be found. It's just that her attitude, her fuck-you attitude, is the thing that stays in my head. It's what follows me all through her work. I don't know if you can really cram an album like this into any box. It floats freely from one genre to the next, blurring all distinctions until nothing remains except the music itself. God is Alive, Magic is Afoot. Those six words that open and close Illuminations are really the only guide you'll ever need. You'll travel through the misty forests on the ride of your life.

Why this album was not a hit in its day amazes me. I'm reminded of a lot of classic music from around 1969 - Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Velvet Underground - that irked the hippies and the suits back then. Now these are the giants. The posers and the fakers have been swept under the rug. I don't see anyone clamoring for those old Sonny & Cher records, do you? La la la la la let's live for today.....fuck that. Gimmie some fuckin' attitude and gimmie some fuckin' truth. It's like nobody else could forsee the rise of Nixonland and never knew how to handle it. Whatever. If that's your take on the last 40 years, then BSM is your new hero.


goodinuf said...

God is Alive, Magic is Afoot still gives me chills. I was a young hippy when this song was made. Pair the lyrics with Bob Dylan's "Man of Peace" from his album "Infidels"

francois said...

What with the Ghibli blog and everything, once I start wandering around your blogs I'll never emerge! You have a remarkable ability to write about the things I love in ways I'd love to.

I discovered Illuminations when I was around 20. It also blew me away with its originality, power and timelessness (I couldn't believe the album was over 20 years old at that point -- which I also felt about VU & Nico), and it still amazes me today. I also loved her vitriol, which made folky contemporaries like Baez and Dylan seem tame.

Last year I finally saw Buffy St Marie perform live in London.