Buffy Sainte-Marie – Illuminations (1969, Vanguard)

I have been waiting for years to listen to this one in this format.

I will not try to explain what a Buchla synthesizer is. You’re going to have to look that up yourself. But know that the album intends to throw you into that world right from the beginning.

Swirling, bubbling treated vocals book-end the first track, a Leonard Cohen poem set to frantic solo acoustic music. The third track, “Better To Find Out For Yourself” is a rockier track than the two previous ones, up to par with the first Jefferson Airplane LP in a sort of safe but rough folk-rock way – ends with some squealing synth sounds. Or maybe rather track four starts with the noises. Actually, what you have here is a bona fide suite, a few songs longs, with the Buchla, organ & tape delay as the bridge.

I would recommend some 60s folk background for this, but not a purist type. You should have at least one early 60s Joan Baez. Buffy has a quivering vibrato that may seem strange to some. Certainly, Grace Slick is another touchpoint here.

The 4th song – “Adam” – is a Richie Havens song – and both a raunchy Aftermath fuzz bass and nice post-“Within You, Without You,” strings that appear intermittently inject a little excitement into this record.

My copy is a bit noisy, but side two’s quiet “The Dream Tree” would have made a nice Art Garfunkel spotlight or better yet, some kind of Joni outtake. It’s truly a beautiful melody.

Side Two starts with a purely emotional performance called “Suffer The Little Children.” Everything about it is pure, the shouts and muttering, the tempo changes and all. Another odd synth/tape bridge brings us to a softer tune called “Angel” with a surprisingly reverbed bed of vocals for a bridge and a soft organ carrying us to the conclusion of Buffy’s voice caught in the echo chamber.

The segues between the tracks and/or the lack of space between them is the secret weapon here. It gives everything a subliminal lift that carries the standard folk-rock production. But there are enough surprises, even without the programming touches. The screams in “With You, Honey,” and the intimate and almost whispered sexy voice in “Guess Who I Saw In Paris” are two good examples.

The penultimate track “He’s A Keeper OF The Fire” gives us another rock lift, this time with a raw Keith-Jorma rotating riff and more wild and barely restrained vocals peppered with quivering accents, near-yodels and a second voice cheering on the main one. It’s one of those songs you find on an album like this that your mind attaches itself to. Very addictive. And yeah, it starts with a very short Buchla burble and it ends with an edit of the guitar petering out.

Of course, “Poppies” is the title of the last track. This couples a sweet soft nylon arpeggio with an operatic vocal swirling in echo. The album ends with the same bubbling “god is alive” vocal Buchla thing that it started with.

Overall – get ready for something strange and different but don’t expect a synth extravaganza. You only get like 30 seconds of it over the course of 35 minutes of folk or folk-rock.

I will definitely come back to this for three reasons – the wilder and somewhat uncontrolled emotional performances, the cool and restrained psychedelic touches aside from the synth connective tissue, and honestly, the lyrics might be what sells this to me, because they mostly seem pretty strange to me. I never get the full impact of lyrics on the first listen but I suspect this to be true. Glad I got this record.