Those looking to Greenbaum's solo debut for tracks that measure up to the cultural touchstone, "Spirit in the Sky," are likely to be disappointed. However, taken on its own merits, this 1969 release has something more to offer. In addition to the original 13 tracks, Varese's reissue adds three previously unreleased demos (including the original acoustic version of "Spirit in the Sky"), and a radio promo (whose layered editing must have sounded right at home on FM underground radio).
The leap from Greenbaum's acoustic demo to the finished production of "Spirit in the Sky" is an education in itself. The original, plucked on an acoustic guitar, shorn of the fuzz guitar and the Stovall Sisters backing vocals, fits more tightly with the simpler, hippie blues-pop that fills the rest of the album. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this reissue is just how out-of-place the final production of "Spirit" sounds. The dominating guitar riff and psychedelic intonations elevate this cut to a level beyond what Greenbaum was predominantly up to at the time.
Listening to the demo, with Greenbaum's unadorned, wavery vocals, the focus returns to the lyrics, which turn out to have the same sort of opacity as many other cuts. It's this fuzziness that allowed "Spirit" to be interpreted as everything from proto-Christian rock to ironic, nearly anti-religious ideas. And its the original spirit of the lyrics, heard in the demo, that connects the song to the album.
The remaining tracks range from memorably melodic pop ("Skyline" "School for Sweet Talk") to Dan Hicks-styled gospel ("Jubilee") to tin-pan alley ("Chocolate Milk"), to rock, blues and soul (including some nice horn charts and wah-wah guitar). The topics include many hippie lifestyle classics, such as farm life and dope smoking ("Tars of India"). The follow-up single, "Canned Ham" (which stalled out at #46) is also included. It's hard to know how these tracks would fare, had they not been born in the shadow of "Spirit in the Sky."
Players include personnel from Sopwith Camel, Crowfoot, and Dan Hicks' Hot Licks. The liner notes by Wayne Jancik include an interesting interview with Greenbaum himself, but points off to Varese for printing them against a background that makes reading so difficult!