The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings. . - Off the Beaten Track - sound recording review

The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings. . - Off the Beaten Track - sound recording reviewThis 4-CD boxed set brings together the seven original studio albums that the influential Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia recorded for Vanguard between 1963 and 1968. The first five of those albums are among the very best recordings of that era and while the last two were increasingly inconsistent, they do contain some worthwhile tracks. With the boxed set selling at less than the cost of any four of the original albums (all of which are available on individual CDs), and with its remastered sound, this set is a bargain for anyone wanting to replace old vinyl or discover some great music.

Their first album, Ian & Sylvia, introduced the duo as magnificent interpreters of traditional songs. They ranged through work songs, blues, ballads, cowboy songs, sea songs, Irish and gospel with one singing lead and the other usually supplying a gorgeous harmony. Occasionally they sang in unison. Gradually, over the next few albums, the material became more contemporary as they both started to write. Ian's first song was "Four String Winds," the title song of the second LP, while Sylvia's first effort was "You Were On My Mind," the lead-off of Northern Journey, the third LP. They also incorporated works by such contemporary songwriters as Bob Dylan, Steve Gillette and Gordon Lightfoot. Almost everything on the first four albums still sounds great today. The only failure among the 52 songs from those LPs is "Song for Canada" from Early Morning Rain, their only attempt at topical songwriting. Co-written by Ian and journalist (and later broadcaster) Peter Gzowski, the song demonstrates the misunderstanding that much of English-speaking Canada had for the brand of French-Quebec nationalism that was developing in the 1960s. Ian's "The French Girl," from the next LP, Play One More, demonstrated a much better understanding of the English-French alienation in Canada in that era.

Even as the songs became more contemporary, the first four albums retained a timeless, traditional feel in their production values. However, their final three Vanguard albums began to reflect a more contemporary folk-rock-country sound. Even though I consider 1966's Play One More to be the first of their later Vanguard efforts, I also consider it to be one of their best-ever albums. The material is strong throughout and most of the arrangements work well. So Much For Dreaming, also from 1966, was less consistent but still contained some great material including the original versions of "Summer Wages" and "Wild Geese," two of Ian's most enduring songs.

Nashville, Ian & Sylvia's last Vanguard album, and an early experiment with country rock was the weakest of their career. They often don't gel well with the Nashville studio musicians and some of the songs just aren't that good. Interestingly, they'd go on to make The Great Speckled Bird in 1970 which was one of country-rock's landmark recordings.

In addition to the material from the seven original albums, the boxed set also includes an alternate version of "Rocks and Gravel," the first song from the first album and "Keep On the Sunny Side," a Carter Family song that was left off that LP. Both of those two tracks were included on Ian & Sylvia's CD in the Best of the Vanguard Years series. The only previously unreleased track is listed as "Je T'aime Marielle." The fact that it is actually an alternate take of "Si Les Bateaux," a Gilles Vigneault song from So Much For Dreaming, is not mentioned in the notes. -- MR