Sunday, August 28, 2011
The Incredible String Band - The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
The Incredible String Band managed to make a pretty impressive change between the tame contemporary folk of their 1966 debut and this, their second long-player, which finds the core duo formulating their idiosyncratic classic sound around an increasingly strong set of songs. It's also the first album where Mike Heron and Robin Williamson begin to live up to the promise of their band's name, expanding their instrumental repertoire to include sitar, gimbri, oud, and tamboura, in addition to the more traditional guitar, fiddle and mandolin they'd already been using.
Of course, playing weird instruments alone a great album does not necessarily make. Without Heron and Williamson's songwriting, chemistry as performers, and the bizarre fusion of world music, more traditional blues and folk, progressive song structures and budding interest in world religions, The Incredible String Band might just sound like every other British 60's folk revival group. The more I revisit my favorite ISB albums, the more interesting I find the combination of Heron's and Williamson's songs. As far as I know, they never really collaborated in co-writing, yet there's a wide-eyed optimism and mystical euphoria that pervades both writers' contributions. With further listening, though, it becomes easier to identify Heron's (the deeper, rounder voice) songs for their whimsy and pop instincts, and Williamson's (the more nasally voice) for their focus on narration and more abstract, eerie imagery. Most people I've talked to about the ISB have a preference for one or the other (I probably like Williamson's more, though Heron's voice is easier on the ears), but the magic of the duo is how well their albums flow between the two writers' songs and how well they both contribute to one another's songs.
By most music fans' standards, The Incredible String Band is quite eccentric and usually elicits divisive reactions. Interestingly enough, the things that most haters complain about--the vocal style, the duo's amateur skills at some of their strange stringed instruments, their hippie ideals, and their proclivity for meandering, twee and overt mysticism--are the precise things that fans of the group love about them. While I totally understand many of these criticisms (many of these songs aren't really the kind of "pretty" music you'd probably expect from a 60's folk duo), I'm obviously in the latter camp. I'd even go so far as to say that there haven't been enough groups making music like this, and that it's heavily influenced my own choices as a musician. That is, acoustic music that is experimental, eclectic, heedless of fashion and conventions, and also transcends the typical trappings of folk, singer/songwriter and pop (other notable practitioners of this underdeveloped approach include Comus, Roy Harper, Tudor Lodge, and maybe Kevin Coyne and Robbie Basho). The Incredible String Band is gloriously unusual in a way that's both deliberate and completely natural, and I don't think they've been matched in their field.
While the band's next album, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, is probably their strongest and most imbued with vision and taste, this album has some of their finest (simply) songs. From infectiously catchy and whimsical Heron contributions like the hand-percussion workout "Little Cloud," the sweet metaphor and harmonies of "Painting Box," and Caribbean inflection and great slide guitar of "The Hedgehog's Song" to Williamson's tender highlight "First Girl I Loved" and twisted folk revival deconstruction "No Sleep Blues," the duo turns in some of the most accessible songcraft of their career. And then there's songs like the hazy "Chinese White" with its incantatory rhythm and fiddle, and Williamson's fantastically knobbly "The Mad Hatter's Song," which reveals its author as both a progressive visionary and an able poet. Though a few songs lean a little too heavily on established folk music tropes and a few others fail to be made of the memorable stuff of the album's highlights, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion is a worthy cornerstone in the ISB's discography and one of the furthest-out albums of 1967. To say that this album and its successor profoundly influenced a lot of great British psychedelic and progressive music that was soon to come would be a flagrant understatement.