Monday, May 17, 2010

Incredible String Band: Reissues

Incredible String Band

Incredible String Band, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam and the Big Huge

Rating: 3.0/5.0, 2.0/5.0, 4.5/5.0, 4.0/5.0

Label: Fledg'ling

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Over 40 years after its initial release, nothing else sounds quite like The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. The Incredible String Band's 1968 masterpiece is still easily one of the most inventive and downright bizarre records of that, or any, decade, and its influence can still be seen in both the best and worst that modern indie has to offer; I'll leave it to the reader to determine which artists fall into each category. Not surprisingly, it's the centerpiece of a reissue campaign that also includes the group's first two records as well as Hangman's marginally inferior successor, all of which cement the ISB's place as one of the 1960s most ambitious, and adventurous, groups.

These reissues confirm the obvious: Hangman's remains the band's defining, and least accessible, work. It's a dizzying, difficult, wild-as-hell record that's not for the faint of heart, and I suspect it only even starts to make sense to a chemically-altered mind. In songs that reference mythological Greek monsters, witch apparel and similar topics, the band mixes mandolin, guitar and harmonica with a ton of other instruments that most of us couldn't pick out of a police lineup: oud, water harp, gimbri, chahana, pan pipe, dulcimer and sitar. "A Very Cellular Song" is still the band's undisputed singular moment, though "Waltz of the New Moon," "Mercy I Cry City," "Water Song" and "There Is a Green Crown" don't lag too far behind. Hangman's requires a certain degree of patience from the listener - indeed, it's surprising the group managed to achieve the level of mainstream success it did, however briefly - but it's an album that is never predictable, no matter how well a listener knows its songs.

The band's less-celebrated albums have aged pretty well and contain plenty of gems, even if they never quite reach the heights of Hangman's. From the ISB's self-titled debut, "October Song," "Dandelion Blues" and "Can't Keep Me Here" are charming and quirky, though most of the album is painfully sincere, daintily delicate to a fault and in thrall to the 1960s folk craze. Time has been the hardest on the unfortunately-titled and ill-conceived sophomore album The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, as large chunks of it now sound hopelessly dated and slight, though "The Mad Hatter's Song" and a few others do hint at the supremely strange folk-psych hybrid the band would master on Hangman's. The band's range had exploded by the time the double-LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge was released; prone to occasional bouts of over-indulgence and out-of-control experimentalism, individual tracks like "Job's Tears," "You Get Brighter," "Air," "Maya" and "Cousin Caterpillar" rank among the band's best moments.

For anyone who hasn't heard The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, its reissue is another opportunity to experience it in all its weirdness and to then evaluate whether a deeper dive into the ISB's other albums is desired. While the overall package is somewhat disappointing - no extras of any kind are included - the sound is noticeably improved, nostalgia-heavy liner notes from Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, Joe Boyd and Clive Palmer give a sense of the band's history and the packaging is snazzy. But ultimately it's the music that matters, and in that respect there's very little to gripe about here.

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