The Incredible String Band Reissues

The Incredible String Band
Hannibal HNCD 4437 (CD only). TT: 45:15
The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion
Hannibal HNCD 4438 (CD only). TT: 50:06
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
Hannibal HNCD 4421 (CD only). TT: 50:12
Wee Tam & the Big Huge
Hannibal HNCD 4802 (2 CDs only). TT: 87:49
Changing Horses
Hannibal HNCD 4439 (CD only). TT: 50:24
I Looked Up
Hannibal HNCD 4440 (CD only). TT: 41:30
All above: Joe Boyd, prod.; John Wood, eng. AAD.

This ultimate hippie band was perhaps the most lyrically sophisticated and musically daring group of the '60s. Twenty-five years ago, they introduced me to the sounds of more exotic instruments than any ten other bands you could name, and changed the very way I thought about music, sound, and poetry. All these years later, it's a rare day when some Robin Williamson lyric doesn't float through my head.

Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, and Clive Palmer founded the Incredible String Band in 1965 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The trio played and sang traditional banjo, fiddle, and pennywhistle tunes, and wrote good-humored songs that showed as much influence as originality. They were soon signed by Joe Boyd, who went on to produce their eponymous first album—a pleasant enough folkie disc, and Boyd's first production gig—after which the ISB promptly fell apart. Clive went to Afghanistan, Robin to Morocco. Mike stayed home.

Within the year, Robin had returned to Scotland, where he and Mike reestablished the ISB and recorded The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion. Fiddle, guitar, and harmonica were now joined by sitar, gimbri, oud, sarangi, Heron's newly discovered Caribbean stylings, and Williamson's distinctly exotic vocal techniques, mostly imported from India and Morocco. The arrangements were like nothing ever heard before—as indescribable as they were, well, incredible.

The songwriting, too, had taken a quantum leap in quality and ambition. Heron's childlike tunefulness and irresistible optimism resulted in the wisely innocent "Chinese White," "Painting Box," "The Hedgehog's Song," "Gently Tender," and the epic "A Very Cellular Song." Williamson, on the other hand, probed deep into the dark night and bright noon of his soul with "The Mad Hatter's Song," "Eyes of Fate," and "Blues for the Muse." Most famous, though, was his "First Girl I Loved," which Judy Collins covered and turned into a folk semi-standard.

Then, in 1968, joined by Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, the ISB produced three masterpieces in quick succession: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam, and The Big Huge (the last two released as a double album in the UK, and now in Ryko's twofer as well). Williamson had now fully emerged as the band's visionary bard in "Waltz of the New Moon," "Three Is a Green Crown," "Job's Tears," "Maya," "Ducks on a Pond," "Lordly Nightshade," and "The Half-Remarkable Question." These are densely written, almost Blakean parades of the human comedy passing by in motley: a carnival of archetypes with the getting of wisdom always the goal.

From "Maya": In time her hair grew long and swept the ground / and seven blackbirds carried it out behind / It bore the holy imprint of her mind / as green-foot slow she moved among the seasons.

And from "Koeeoaddi There": Listen: a woman with a bulldozer built this house of now / carving away the mountain whose name is your childhood home / we were trying to buy it, buy it, buy it / someone was found killed there, all bones, bones, dry bones // Earth, water, fire, and air / met together in a garden fair / put in a basket bound with skin / if you answer this riddle you'll never begin.

The balance began to slip a bit on Changing Horses and I Looked Up, Williamson altogether abandoning anything resembling traditional song structure to write 16-minute-long epics in which music was sacrificed to his ever-thornier lyrics. Heron continued to provide lovely tunes, but, unleavened by Williamson's tartness, Heron's innocence began to shift from the child-like to the childish—like McCartney without Lennon. Still, there's plenty to love on these two discs, particularly Heron's a cappella "Sleepers, Awake!" and Williamson's truly impressive "Creation" on Changing Horses, and Heron's "Black Jack Davy," "This Moment," and "Fair As You" on I Looked Up.

ISB concerts of the '60s were more like medieval festivals than folk/rock concerts. Those audiences sat at the band's feet seeking no less than instruction in the care of their souls; as often as not, they came away suffused with the glow of exaltation. It's easy to ridicule such seeming love-feast preciosity from the weary vantage point of our own nasty '90s. More to the point is that the musical/philosophical/poetic substance of the ISB's music is even more valuable today—because rarer—than it was then.

Williamson in particular invented not only a soaring, swooping vocal technique in which to sing his thorny lyrics, which go down in the ear with astonishing effortlessness; but also a mercurial, eclectic instrumental style to support it all, in which the harpsichord lies down with the sitar, and both are serenaded by the kazoo. On first listen, one is amazed at the ISB's eagerness to try absolutely anything. On subsequent hearings, the fact that almost every one of their inspirations works seems downright miraculous. The facts that the ISB could only just play most of their scores of instruments, and that their vocal styles and qualities were, well, unique, almost never mattered. Regardless of their lacks of polish or chops, there are true grace, magic, and insight to be found on every one of these six albums. On the central four, there's nothing but.

Rumor has it that these master tapes were in poor shape when producer Joe Boyd dug them out for Hannibal/Rykodisc's reissue series. They sound it. The CDs sound no better than my 25-year-old LPs (which have seen better days); at worst, they sound downright distorted—especially Hangman, which sounded harsh enough on LP. But as the same rumor has it that the later ISB master tapes—for U, Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air, etc.—are so deteriorated as to be unusable, I guess we're lucky to have these at all.

If you've never heard the Incredible String Band, pick up Hangman or Wee Tam & the Big Huge. I can't guarantee that these albums will change your life; I can promise that you'll never listen to the marriage of words and music—here sounding as inevitable as it is unlikely—in the same way again. Koeeoaddi there.—Richard Lehnert