The Best Thing Ever to Have Come Out of Canada

Feature: A valentine to Ian & Sylvia

Ian & Sylvia
• April 24, 2017 4:57 am


If I were inventing a country off the top of my head, I bet it would look a lot like Canada. The landscape is beautiful, the weather perfect. Everyone has health care. The government did not ostentatiously bail out its banks in 2008. The citizens are kind beer-drinking sports fans who will give driving directions to random foreigners. They have quaint, almost absurd-sounding names for their money, which is emblazoned with images of waterfowl. There is a queen.

Even more important, the Canadians punch way, way above their cultural weight. Neil is a legend, Joni is a goddess, Gordon is probably the coolest man alive. And then there's Ian & Sylvia, the sometime husband-and-wife folk duo who cut a dozen or so records in the '60s for Vanguard, where they were label mates with Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Odetta. Almost nobody can name an Ian & Sylvia LP nowadays, even though, track for track, most of these albums are brilliant. How did this happen? I blame the AllMusicGuide, which gives most of their albums around three stars. Three stars compared to what, nerds? Some vaporwave crap that no one cares about?

I would not necessarily start with Ian & Sylvia's first record. It is the only one from the era that sometimes sounds a bit uninspired, and not just because it doesn't have any originals on it. Still, it does give you a sense of the format, and the playing is top-notch throughout. Trivia: The slick bass you hear on tracks like "Rocks and Gravel" is played by Bill Lee, father of Spike. By their second outing, Four Strong Winds, the harmonies have improved vastly. The title track is the best thing Ian ever wrote and possibly the greatest country tune of the decade with the exception of "Coal Miner's Daughter." It is also, among other things, Neil Young's favorite song of all time. That should tell you everything you need to know.

The next two albums, cut for cut, are my personal favorites in the catalogue. You Were on My Mind starts with a Sylvia original written in a bathroom in Greenwich Village because, as she later explained, it was "the only place the cockroaches wouldn't go." There's a dorky cover by We Five that hit number-three a few years later, which you should absolutely skip. There is also a gorgeous version of the traditional Canadian war ballad "Brave Wolfe." The single best side they ever cut, though, is side one of Early Morning Rain. Yes, they cover Lightfoot; yes, their reading is even more haunting than either of Gordo's. If you know of a sadder song than this melancholy tale of an oil rig hand who's blown his savings on drink and loose women and can't afford a plane ride home to the girl he's left behind, please email me. Sorry, Clancy Brothers: the "Nancy Whiskey" on this album is easily the single best recording of the ballad.

The other thing about these LPs, each of which I have been able to pick up for $2 or less, is that as physical objects they are beautiful. I tend to like my folk records to have a certain look. Flowers are nice, for example, and lettering either in delicate cursive or giving the impression that it was done with a crayon. The artists on the jackets should be wearing gorgeous old Goodwill sweaters; the women in particular should look haunted and sylvan, like Vassar College English majors circa 1962 who spend their days walking autumnal forest paths clutching paperbacks of Keats to their hearts and daydreaming about Fabian socialism. Also, if possible, the photos should be taken outside. Back in the day a lot of Emmylou's LPs had this particular look. All of Ian & Syvlia's records fit the bill. Check out Ian's get-up on the cover of Northern Journey. That is what a folk-poet looks like.

By now you're probably asking yourself why you don't already own two copies of Early Morning Rain. I blame what I like to think of as "the Whig history of the album," in which pseudo-bold white innovators working in the post-Dylan lyrical tradition loom large over honest craftsmen like Percy Sledge, and a handful of genres with certain, often risible, pretensions are lionized at the expense of others: British invasion rock over country and traditional folk, psychedelia over soul, prog over disco. Who cares if some record is the first time a Western pop singer played a sitar or if the lyrics were becoming noticeably "darker"? Realizing that the album is not really an art form per se, that not everything with two or more sides is trying to be Sgt. Pepper, and that hundreds of albums with titles like Ian & Sylvia Play One More are a thousand times better than Tommy because they are simply full of great songs is an important step towards musical maturity. Importance, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis, is not important. Only good records are.

Published under: Art Reviews