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Ian & Sylvia

Reviewed on this page:
Ian & Sylvia (1963) - Four Strong Winds - Northern Journey - Early Morning Rain - Play One More - So Much For Dreaming - Lovin' Sound - Full Circle - Nashville - Great Speckled Bird - Ian & Sylvia - Woman's World - Cool Wind From The North - Satin On Stone - A Cosmic Christmas - Sugar For Sugar Salt For Salt - You Were On My Mind (1989) - Gypsy Cadillac - Songs From The Gravel Road

The real-life Mitch & Mickie, Ian & Sylvia were a Canadian folk duo that flourished in the early 60s, married in the mid-60s, faded in the early 70s, divorced in the mid-70s, and went on to solo careers. Initially, good folkies that they were, they focused on interpreting a variety of traditional material - Scottish laments, country blues, French-Canadian singalongs - but as time went on they wrote more and more of their own songs; Ian's began focusing on his Western Canadian cowboy background. At the same time, their arrangements grew from stark two-voices-and-guitar to full band, and eventually to country and western. I tend to prefer the earlier stuff, partly because they were better at picking songs than at writing them, but there are some fine moments in their later work as well.

I haven't found any true fan sites; Vanguard Records has some good information, and the official site of Sylvia's current group Quartette is probably the best source of current news about her. (DBW)

Ian Tyson, guitar, vocals; Sylvia Fricker (later Sylvia Tyson), vocals, autoharp, guitar.

Ian & Sylvia (1963)
By the time they cut their debut, Ian & Sylvia had been singing these songs for ages, and it sounds like it: their interpretations, from the familiar ("C.C. Rider") to the obscure ("Rambler Gambler"), are confident and idiosyncratic, often with the pair singing dual, asynchronous leads. The material ranges from the 19th Century French-Canadian manifesto "Un Candien Errant" to the spiritual "Live A-Humble," and the singers bring a great deal of energy to the proceedings without grandstanding, often taking the tunes at unsettlingly fast tempos ("Pride Of Petrovar"). Paradoxically, they succeed with the blues because they sound so white: they bring the same clean guitar tone, ice-clear vocals and Northern inflections to W.C. Handy's "Got No More Home Than A Dog" and the prison work song "Rocks And Gravel" that they bring to the Canadian folk song "Mary Anne," and so they come off perfectly sincere. Additional backing by John Herald (guitar) and Bill Lee (bass, prominent on "Rocks And Gravel"); Art Davis replaces Lee on two numbers. (DBW)

Four Strong Winds (1963)
Again, the bulk of the material is traditional: another French-Canadian song ("V'la L'bon Vent"), another Scottish ballad ("Every Night When The Sun Goes Down"), two gospel tunes ("Jesus Met The Woman At The Well," "Every Time I Feel The Spirit"). But the tunes aren't as striking (the endless prison song "Poor Lazarus") and the arrangements aren't nearly as distinctive, perhaps because the record was cut so soon after their debut. But there is a striking version of the wrenching Irish ballad "Royal Canal," and "Lady Of Carlisle" is a good example of the duo's early fast-rolling, exuberant-yet-crisp style. The title track, by Tyson, was the first original song they recorded - it was later covered by Neil Young. Other material includes a cover of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," and a traditional song Dylan would later record himself, "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue." Herald returns on guitar, with Eric Weissberg on bass. (DBW)

Northern Journey (1963)
Some of the duo's best moments, and some of their worst. Fricker's "You Were On My Mind" is probably their best original: catchy folk-pop, it later became a hit single for We Five. Tyson's two tunes - "Four Rode By" and "Some Day Soon" - are also memorable, and "Texas Rangers" is a stirring ballad with a dramatic a capella presentation. On the other hand, "Little Beggarman" is the sort of corny sing-a-long fluff that gave folk singers a bad name, and "Moonshine Can" isn't much better. The one gospel song is overly familiar ("Swing Down Chariot"), and the narrative songs ("The Ghost Lover," "Captain Woodstock's Courtship") are only intermittently captivating. Backing musicians include Herald, Weissberg, Monte Dunn (guitar) and Russ Savakus (bass), in various combinations. (DBW)

Early Morning Rain (1964)
A couple of Gordon Lightfoot tunes (the lovely title track; "For Lovin' Me") and Johnny Cash's "Come In Stranger," but for the first time most of the songs are by Ian or Sylvia. Sylvia's contributions stick to traditional folk (the slice-of-Canadian-life "Travelling Drummer"; the city blues "Maude's Blues") while Ian stretches into protest (the anti-secession "Song For Canada") and love songs ("Red Velvet"). Accompanied by Dunn and Savakus. Though they'd started as a musical partnership and not a romantic one, the couple got married in June 1964, and had a child, Clay Tyson, the following year. (DBW)

Play One More (1965)
No traditional material at all here, and the instrumentation is also moving toward pop, thanks to bassist/arranger Felix Pappalardi: A full band appears on Bacharach & David's "Twenty-Four Hours To Tulsa" and Ian's title track. Moreover, a couple of tracks are ruined by prominent organ from Paul Griffin (Sylvia's otherwise pleasant "Gifts Are For Giving"; "When I Was A Cowboy"). Fortunately, some songs get a standard guitar and autoharp treatment, including their version of Phil Ochs's "Changes." The co-written "The French Girl" has a nice, "Yesterday"-influenced guitar and string quartet arrangement, and Weissberg's banjo drives the characteristically fast-paced "Molly And Tenbrooks." Rick Turner is on electric guitar, sometimes supplemented by Weissberg. (DBW)

Live At Newport (rec. 1963, 1965; rel. 1996)
Six tracks from their 1963 Newport appearance, nine from 1965. (DBW)

So Much For Dreaming (1966)
With their versions of "Catfish Blues" - sung by Sylvia solo, like most of their blues numbers - and "The Circle Game." Backing musicians are David Rea (guitar), Robert Bushnell (bass) and Al Rogers (drums). (DBW)

Lovin' Sound (1967)
The Tysons left Vanguard for MGM and began the nomadic phase of their career, much as Bobby Bonds left the Giants and with similar results. Produced by John Court, and the record is paradigmatic mid-60s folk-rock bastardization: The album title nods to the Lovin' Spoonful, and the tacky "National Hotel" is in their retro-20s style. The opener "Windy Weather" is a conflation - lyrically and musically - of the Association's "Windy" and "Monday Monday" by the Mamas & The Papas. The requisite Dylan cover ("I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)") gets a horrendous flower power treatment with a guitar-imitating-a-sitar coda. Most tunes are by Ian or Sylvia, including Ian's mawkish ode to their son, "Mr. Spoons"; exceptions are Tim Hardin's "Hang On To A Dream" and Johnny Cash's "Big River," which gets a straight country-western treatment that's the only genuine moment on the record. The band is Rea, Paul Harris (keys), Harvey Brooks (bass) and Bill LaVorna (drums). Packaged on one CD with the following album as Movin' On. (DBW)

Full Circle (1968)
Immediately abandoning the folk-rock experiment, the Tysons went for country & western instead ("Jinkson Johnson"). Produced by Elliot Mazar and arranged by Ian; musicians include Rae, Bill Pursell, Weldon Myrick, Norbert Putnam & Keith Buttrey. But on many of the tunes, the country elements seem like an afterthought: "Here's To You" is a pop arrangement with steel guitar plastered on top; "Shinbone Alley" is a rocker that would have fit on Lovin' Sound. Sylvia's "Woman's World" - wherein she employs such heavy vibrato it sounds like an electronic effect - is basically a piano ballad with strings. But they might have been better off worrying less about genre and more about songwriting; nothing here is memorable except for Ian's sorrowful "Stories He'd Tell." The Dylan cover du jour is "Tears Of Rage," and "Mr. Spoons" is remade from the previous album. (DBW)

Nashville (1968)
This came out on Vanguard because it turned out they still owed that label an album, but it's all new recordings, not outtakes. Two more Dylan covers, but unfortunately they're from the Basement Tapes: "This Wheel's On Fire" and "The Mighty Quinn," which does have a nice opening with sawing fiddles. Arranged by Ian & Sylvia; produced by Ian. (DBW)

The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings (rec. 1962-1968, rel. 2001)
Includes all seven original Vanguard albums, and three bonus tracks: "Keep On The Sunny Side," "Je T'Aime Marielle" and an outtake of "Rocks And Gravel." (DBW)

Great Speckled Bird (Great Speckled Bird: 1969)
At this point the Tysons fronted a country-rock band: Amos Garrett (lead guitar), Buddy Cage (steel), Ken Kalmusky (bass) 9`and N.D. Smart II (drums). The resulting album - produced by Todd Rundgren - came out on Ampex, and disappeared in short order. Sometimes pointed to as a landmark because it was a relatively early example of the genre, but from a songwriting perspective it's weak: Sylvia's "Truckers Café" is a formulaic heartbreak tune sung with undue vibrato, and that's one of the better tunes. Ian covers a fair amount of ground, from the slow waltz "Flies In The Bottle" to the rockin' "Love What You're Doing Child," but the compositions are less than memorable. The record is most notable for the intriguing interplay between Garrett and Cage, and for Sylvia's transcendent gospel number "We Sail." Reissued on CD in 2000 with a live bonus track: "New Truckers Café." (DBW)

You Were On My Mind (Ian & Sylvia with the Great Speckled Bird: 1970)
Is it ever a good sign when you re-record your early hits? The first of two albums on Columbia. (DBW)

Ian & Sylvia (1971)
Sometimes known as With David Wilcox, I believe this was their last album as a duo. In fact, most songs are sung by one or the other (Ian's "More Often Than Not"; Sylvia's slow blues "Midnight"), so a good name for this album might have been Ian Or Sylvia. Another hit was re-recorded: "Summer Wages" from So Much For Dreaming. The band is mostly the same crew from Full Circle - not a feather remained from the Speckled Bird - and the country influences are muted but nothing takes their place, so the tracks sound more or less like demos. A mix of originals (Sylvia's "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye"; Ian's "Shark And The Cockroach") and covers (Bert Jansch's folkie "Needle Of Death"). Produced by John Hill, who also arranged the occasionally overbearing strings ("Creators Of Rain"). (DBW)

Ol' Eon (Ian Tyson with the Great Speckled Bird: 1974)

Woman's World (Sylvia Tyson: 1975)
A striking solo debut, produced and arranged by Ian. The title track was originally recorded on Full Circle, and here it's given a grand, striking piano-led treatment. All the other songs are new Sylvia compositions, and they have more range than the usual I&A album: spirited honky-tonk on the anti-romance "Time For A Change"; full-bore country on the kissoff "Bluebird Café"; nightclub jazz on the downright depressing "Whatever Became Of Me." In fact, it's hard to escape the conclusion that much of the album concerns the breakup of the Tysons' marriage ("Blind Leading The Blind"); only the warmly comforting "Sleep On My Shoulder" doesn't seem to fit that theme. A whole new band: Dave Brown (drums), Jack Zaza (bass), Al Cherney (fiddle), Pee Wee Charles (steel guitar), Gordon Fleming and Doug Riley (keyboards) and six guitarists, but the sound isn't overproduced, as the focus stays on Sylvia and her taut, mournful songs. (DBW)

Cool Wind From The North (Sylvia Tyson: 1976)
The second and last Sylvia solo record produced by Ian, but it's a big dropoff. Most of the band is the same, though Zaza was replaced by Kim Brandt and Jim Morgan - both of them use an incongruously bright tone and play disco-y vamps that rather ruin the mood (Mentor Williams's "Good Old Song"). Otherwise, the sound is carefully recorded folk-pop. Sylvia wrote almost everything - exceptions include Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris's "In My Hour Of Darkness," and folk pioneer Dave Van Ronk's "Honey Hair" - but the character sketches ("Tumble-Down Woman") and love song ("I Can't Learn To Love You (All Over Again)") are a bit shapeless. I'm not even crazy about the wanderlust ode "River Road," though it became a staple of her act. (DBW)

Satin On Stone (Sylvia Tyson: 1978)
Once separated from Ian, Sylvia put blues (Mississippi John Hurt's "Richland Woman") and traditional songs ("Green Rocky Road") back into her act. However, the production (by Dan Potter) is moving farther toward AM pap (a dismal, mellow cover of
Jerry Ragovoy's "Piece Of My Heart"), with predictable overuse of Fender Rhodes ("Woman In Love") and sappy balladeering ("Love Is A Fire"). Lyrically, another mix of love songs and portraits ("Flower Child"). Of Sylvia's seven compositions, the only standout is a gospelly piano anthem a la "We Sail" ("Close To The Bone"). The band is a mix of holdovers - Riley, Brandt, Wilcox, Charles - and fresh faces (Daniel Lanois on rhythm guitar). (DBW)

One Jump Ahead Of The Devil (Ian Tyson: 1978)
Tyson launched his solo career as a straight-ahead country artist. (DBW)

A Cosmic Christmas (Sylvia Tyson: 1978)
Not the soundtrack to the animated TV special of the same name, it's sort of a companion volume, with Sylvia reading narration and occasionally breaking out into song. Since it's a children's album mixing narration and song with a science fiction plot, I was hoping I could compare it to Cris Williamson's Lumiere, but Williamson wrote real, complete songs, and Tyson's are just throwaway, minute-long snippets ("The Way That Christmas Used To Be"). Avoid unless you're nostalgic for the TV show, or you're crazy about Tyson's speaking voice. (DBW)

Sugar For Sugar - Salt For Salt (Sylvia Tyson: 1979)
A welcome shift back to country/folk ("Chickenhawk Charlie," a campfire singalong backed only by Marty Stuart's fiddle)... on the austere "Wedding In White" she's accompanied only by two guitars. The album title comes from the traditional "Rabbit Brown's Blues," which is enjoyable (Sylvia's double-tracked harmonies particularly) though a bit overlong, at more than seven minutes. There are still some somnolescent soft-rock arrangements ("Someday With You"), but not nearly as many. Backing is credited to The Great Speckled Bird, which now features Joan Besen (piano), Danny Greenspoon (guitar), Rockin' Randy (bass) and Bohdan Hluszko (drums) - Garrett adds lead guitar to several tracks, while producer Potter plays on a few others. (DBW)

Old Corrals & Sagebrush (Ian Tyson: 1983)

Ian Tyson (Ian Tyson: 1984)

Big Spotlight (Sylvia Tyson: 1986)

Cowboyography (Ian Tyson: 1987)

I Outgrew The Wagon (Ian Tyson: 1989)
Includes a remake of "Four Strong Winds." (DBW)

You Were On My Mind (Sylvia Tyson: 1989)
Jeez, it's a nice song, but how many times can she record it? She also re-records "River Road," the always welcome "Sleep On My Shoulder," and "Trucker's Café." Plus she does that weird vibrato thing on a few tracks ("Pepere's Mill," present in two versions, with duet vocals from Lucille Starr). So the record's distinctive - "Last Call" is another of her patented tales of romantic despair - but overfamiliar. Produced by Tom Russell, who added duet vocals to "Thrown To The Wolves"; the core band is Albert Lee and Andrew Hardin (guitars), John Sheard (piano), Dennis Pendrith (bass) and Bucky Berger (drums). (DBW)

And Stood There Amazed (Ian Tyson: 1991)

Gypsy Cadillac (Sylvia Tyson: 1992)
Again, Russell produced with Tyson, and dueted on one tune ("Remain A Child"). There's less country here than on her previous solo albums, and instead there are a lot of slow piano ballads ("I Walk These Rails"; "Deeper Waters" would have fit on an early Mariah Carey album). Lee is on a much longer leash, though, adding near-constant soloing to a number of tracks (the relatively upbeat "Heart Disease"; the almost loud "Hearts On The Faultline"). (DBW)

Eighteen Inches Of Rain (Ian Tyson: 1994)

Quartette (Quartette: 1994)
A collaboration between Sylvia and three other Canadian folk singers: Colleen Peterson, Cindy Church and Caitlin Hanford. (DBW)

Work Of The Heart (Quartette: 1995)

All The Good 'Uns (Ian Tyson: 1996)

It's Christmas (Quartette: 1996)

In The Beauty Of The Day (Quartette: 1998)
After Colleen Peterson died from cancer in 1996, Gwen Swick joined the group. (DBW)

Lost Herd (Ian Tyson: 1999)

Kick It Down (Clay Tyson: 1999)
"Mr. Spoons" is all grown up now, and he cut his own album. (DBW)

River Road & Other Stories (Sylvia Tyson: 2000)
I think this is a mix of songs and stories, from the one-woman show of the same name. (DBW)

Live At Longview (Ian Tyson: 2002)
All the material is from Tyson's solo career, apart from a cover of "Blue Moon." (DBW)

Songs From The Gravel Road (Ian Tyson: 2005)
Confidently low-key, Tyson sounds much more comfortable than he did in the Ian & Sylvia days. He wrote everything except for the traditional "One Morning In May," mostly dealing with cowboy themes ("The Ambler Saddle") from a wistful perspective (the tender story song "Silver Bell"). Even the songs that aren't about Western themes are downbeat ("So No More," "Always Saying Goodbye"), but the mood never gets too dour, thanks to some doses of humor (the live singalong "Moisture") and some deep contemplation (the twisting spoken verses of "This Is My Sky"). The core band is Rick Whitelaw (guitar), Jon Sheard (keys), George Koller (bass) and Mark Kelso (drums), and they cook up supple support that's basic without being bland, pop/country without being wishy-washy. Cindy Church adds vocals on "Range Delivery." Produced and recorded by Danny Greenspoon. (DBW)

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