Graded on a Curve:
F.J. McMahon,
Spirit of the Golden Juice

The reservoir of unreleased and underheard sounds continues to offer a plethora of artifacts, and those keen on singer-songwriters might want to investigate the 1969 LP by F.J. McMahon. Spirit of the Golden Juice has developed a cult following over the years through previous reissues, which is no surprise given its emotional verve, crisp musicianship, and sturdy songs. On August 11, it hits racks again on vinyl through the auspices of Anthology Recordings.

Sporting a cover that vibes C&W and a title nodding to the mind-expanding activities widespread in the era of its making, F.J. McMahon’s sole album dodges these predictors to deliver a trim set of folk-rock. Low of budget but high on discipline, the production places McMahon at the forefront as his songs and delivery evoke similarities to Tim Hardin and Fred Neil.

To McMahon’s credit, he’s not a copyist. And as Keegan Mills Cooke mentions in his notes for the set, he’s not a loner or outsider in comportment, though circumstances haven’t stopped folks from claiming as such. Unlike many rescued obscurities featuring a man singing songs with a guitar, Spirit of the Golden Juice isn’t accurately tagged as a private-press relic either, the disc paid for and released by the California label Accent; after recording, McMahon reportedly received 20 copies from the company and that was that.

But Spirit of the Golden Juice is certainly a personal affair. McMahon was a Vietnam vet, and the experience seeped into the LP’s content (the juice of the title isn’t any psychedelic stuff, but I.W. Harper bourbon, which fueled his Asian sojourn), though the songs were written by observing his Cali surroundings post-Vietnam in prep for cutting this album.

Having gigged in bands during the early ‘60s (the booklet includes photos of two, The Cordells and The Checkmates), McMahon was adept instrumentally, and his writing possesses economy that likely derived from playing in front of an audience. This aspect is nicely offset by the abovementioned desire for personal expression, with the opener “Sister, Brother” maintaining a sharp tension across four minutes.

Its title might seem to point to his military background, but “The Road Back Home” is more introspective in nature, its lyrics concerning relationships and isolation. And if not exceptional, the consistently high quality of the words is deepened by his unstrained vocal timbre (shades of late-’60s Greenwich Village, again) and some fine playing, as McMahon’s guitar solo in “The Road Back Home” provides Spirit of the Golden Juice with an early highlight.

But I’m especially taken by the prettiness of “Early Blue,” especially in a repeated lyric throughout. Had the LP taken off, the track feels like a natural pick for a single, though the rhythmically punchy “Black Night Woman” could’ve fit the bill as well. It’s worth noting that while clearly made inexpensively, Accent did bring in capable accompanists who solidify the LP’s pro bona fides as the lack of slickness or period flourishes avoids the dated.

The disc is still obviously a byproduct of the ’60s, and that’s cool; “One Alone Together” has just a hint of country-rock flavor, but overall, Spirit of the Golden Juice isn’t about diversity. Instead, it’s focused on McMahon’s songs as filtered through a cohesive sound. With “Five Year Kansas Blues,” the lyrics seem to touch upon Vietnam (“I don’t see no reason for killing some family man”) while simultaneously (again, seemingly) turning away from the autobiographical.

There are undercurrents of variety; “Enough It is Done” is the only song here to consciously bring Dylan to mind, though the connection is a mild one and actually somewhat anticipates Bob’s ’70s motions. Sly! And “The Learned Man” subtly ups the rock in the folk-rock angle, and would’ve served as a good B-side to “Early Blue.” This leaves the title track, rife with snaky electric leads and some of McMahon’s best lyrics, to close out the record on a strong note.

The Spirit of the Golden Juice does have a few faults; in both “Sister, Brother” and title track there are bass lines (by Jon Uzonyi from the Accent-signed outfit Peacepipe) that are greatly reduced in effectiveness by being nearly submerged. Cooke mentions that the production was “semi-improvised,” but thankfully the tone isn’t erratic, with McMahon’s voice mixed high from start to finish. Knowing what they were after has given his LP extended saying-power.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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