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F J McMahon F J McMahon
Album: Spirit Of The Golden Juice
Label: Anthology
Tracks: 9
Website: http://www.mexicansummer.com

For many years Spirit of the Golden Juice was one of those music legends that could spread wild and free in the years before the internet - guy comes home from 'Nam, makes an album in a tiny studio, wends his way up and down the California coast flogging copies out of the back of his car at pass-the-hat café and bar gigs. A few months later he ducks out of the music game and goes about his life as the record he left behind gathers kudos and the kind of mystique multi-million dollar marketing campaigns would kill for.

Many years later, in a new century, some enterprising soul manages to negotiate a limited reissue and its fame is sealed. So much so that it has now earned a much bigger reprint, enough to tempt its maker to play the record live for the first time in nearly 50 years and support the newly kindled interest in his back pages.

McMahon was a teenage Californian surf rocker before joining the US Air Force and being posted to Vietnam. On his return in 1969 he turned a few bucks playing covers in bars before he was persuaded to write an album's worth of original material, which he duly did at his grandmother's house and recorded in a storefront studio in Ventura with a rhythm section he didn't know supplied by his label.

The songs are not ones of twisted angst, or tortured regret, they're not even particularly sorrowful. Instead they are imbued with a simple homespun wisdom, the kind that's acquired by a man who's listened and listened well. In The Learned Man he sings of meeting a man who answers his questions with silence, thereby teaching him the only one he needs to ask anything of is himself.

The songs suggest a quiet adventurousness a quest to find out more and then to be glad of the memory it creates. Early Blue charts his desire to be around people but only on his own terms, while Five Year Kansas Blues is a classic outlaw folk ballad and on the title track (a reference to bourbon, by the way) he notes: "The longer I live/The farther I find I've got to go."

McMahon's voice has been compared favourably (if a little lazily) to the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin, but it's neither as warm nor as melancholy as them. That said there's certainly something of each in these nine short but affecting songs and generous ears might even detect a hint of Richie Havens in the romantically charged Black Night Woman.

Sonically the settings are sparse - acoustic guitar, bass and brushed drums with McMahon overdubbing reverberated acoustic lead guitar on top, possibly a little too enthusiastically in places. Other than vocals the only extra is a tellingly direct organ solo on Early Blue. In that regard it's effectively a blueprint for lo-fi loner folk, but such a description seems trite and just a little too easy for a record that sounds so disarmingly simple but turns out to be anything but.

Nick Churchill
www.nickchurchill.org.uk