Lindsay Zoladz, Pitchfork:
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Buffy Sainte-Marie’s cosmic, groundbreaking 1969 album, an ecstatic invocation of pain, pleasure, and divinity.
Illuminations is a potent artifact from those early days when the synthesizer conjured audible awe and limitless possibility. (Even Giorgio Moroder’s first Moog-driven hit, “Son of My Father,” was not released until 1972.) Illuminations would have been a tough sell in 1969 regardless, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Sainte-Marie learned another factor in its commercial failure: Because of her activism with the recently formed American Indian Movement (AIM) and her outspoken Vietnam-era pacifism, the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations had both led campaigns to blacklist her music from American radio stations and record stores. “Buffy thought that the decline of her record sales was just part of legitimate changes in American public taste,” her biographer Blair Stonechild wrote in 2012’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way. But years after the release of Illuminations, when an American radio DJ was interviewing Sainte-Marie, he shocked her by apologizing for abiding by a government mandate to stop spinning her tunes. She recalled, “He had a letter on White House stationery commending him for suppressing this music, which deserved to be suppressed.”
As the years went by, Illuminations developed something of a cult following; in 1998, the experimental music magazine The Wire put it on a list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire When Nobody Was Listening.” (“If Dylan going electric in 1965 would have turned folk purists into baying hyenas,” they wrote, “Buffy Sainte-Marie going electronic would have turned them into kill-hungry wolves.”) But, like Sainte-Marie herself, the bewitching, utterly transporting Illuminations has still not gotten a fraction of its due. It is a record overripe for reevaluation—for reasons not limited to but certainly including pissing off the ghost of Richard Nixon.
In the early years of her life, Sainte-Marie experienced much to work in spite of, much to travel beyond. She was born on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan, though she’s not sure when, or under what circumstances she ended up in an adoption agency. She knows, at least, that she was born sometime in the early 1940s, and that the traumatic practice of ripping indigenous babies from their homes would continue to be common practice in Canada for decades; the phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “Sixties Scoop.” She was adopted by a white family in Wakefield, Massachusetts and given the name Beverley Sainte-Marie.
Buffy had a creative and encouraging mother, but through the Sainte-Marie family she also came in contact with several male relatives, including her adoptive brother, who inflicted upon her years of sexual and emotional abuse.
The Buchla, which would become Sainte-Marie’s instrument, was another beast entirely.
“It wasn’t even as though there was an electric keyboard, it was too early,” she recalled. “We just called it a matrix, a bunch of possibilities you could connect in various ways to modify sound waves.” Subotnik and Don Buchla, who developed the Buchla 100 together in the mid-1960s, were less interested in futurizing recognizable instruments like the piano than they were giving people a blank slate to create new forms. “My basic thought was to be creative with this new instrument,” Subotnik said in a 2017 interview, “to show people how, without black and white keyboards, you could create a new kind of music.” Sainte-Marie—an artist who’d always seen beyond simple binaries—was enamored of this strange new machine.
(click here to continue reading Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations Album Review | Pitchfork.)
I don’t know much about Buffy Sainte-Marie, but I’ve owned this LP for a while, and it is quite intriguing. Give it a spin! Piss off the rotting corpse of Richard Nixon!
Thom Jurek, Allmusic:
In the year 2000, the Wire magazine picked this spaced out gem from Native American folksinger and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie as one the “100 Albums That Set the World on Fire.” Released in 1969, and now on CD, as of 2001, it was reissued as an import on 180 gram vinyl with its original glorious artwork and package. Interestingly enough, it’s a record Sainte-Marie doesn’t even list on her discography on her website. It doesn’t matter whether she cares for it or not, of course, because Illuminations is as prophetic a record as the first album by Can or the psychedelic work of John Martin on Solid Air. For starters, all of the sounds with the exception of a lead guitar on one track and a rhythm section employed on three of the last four selections are completely synthesized from the voice and guitar of Sainte-Marie herself.
This is poetry as musical tapestry and music as mythopoetic sonic landscape; the weirdness on this disc is over-exaggerated in comparison to its poetic beauty. It’s gothic in temperament, for that time anyway, but it speaks to issues and affairs of the heart that are only now beginning to be addressed with any sort of constancy — check out the opener “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” or the syncopated blues wail in “Suffer the Children” or the arpeggiated synthesized lyrics of “The Vampire.” When the guitars begin their wail and drone on “The Angel,” the whole record lifts off into such a heavenly space that Hans Joachim Rodelius must have heard it back in the day, because he uses those chords, in the same order and dynamic sense, so often in his own music. Some may be put off by Sainte-Marie’s dramatic delivery, but that’s their loss; this music comes from the heart — and even space has a heart, you know. One listen to the depth of love expressed on “The Angel” should level even the crustiest cynic in his chair. Combine this with the shriek, moan, and pure-lust wail of “With You, Honey” and “He’s a Keeper of the Fire” — you can hear where Tim Buckley conceived (read: stole) the entirety of Greetings From LA from, and Diamanda Galas figured out how to move across octaves so quickly. The disc closes with the gothic folk classic “Poppies,” the most tripped out, operatic, druggily beautiful medieval ballad ever psychedelically sung.
(click here to continue reading Illuminations – Buffy Sainte-Marie | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic.)