Sunday, June 14, 2009
I - the Incredible String Band - "U"
If the first sound you hear when you drop the needle is a sitar twanging and bonging, you’re in for a rough ride.
When that sitar is kicking off a two record set of hippie nonsense subtitled “A surreal parable in song and dance”, you’re SERIOUSLY in trouble.
The lowdown: the Incredible String Band was primarily 2 Scottish folkies who frolicked in whimsy and truly symbolized 60’s love children taken to extremes. Like if Donovan was serious. (He was?? Oh…) Mike Heron (the lower voice, the more straightforward songs) and Robin Williamson (high voice, experimental instruments, compositions more free form) were earnestly (BOY are they earnest) trying to bring the British folk sound into the Summer of Love: while they could occasionally stumble over a good tune (Heron’s “You Get Brighter” & “China White”, Williamson’s “First Girl I Loved” & “Way Back in the 1960’s”), they were more apt to be precious – so precious you wanted to beat them senseless.
I was NOT looking forward to this record. I tried listening to it once when I first got it, and didn’t even get through side one (when I learned that the live presentation of “U” included mimes, I REALLY wanted nothing to do with it.) Yet here it is – “U” is the only other “I” in my collection, but unlike the other “I” (Michael Iceberg), I’m not actually angry having to hear it, but I AM annoyed and bored out of my gourd. AND I HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE SECOND RECORD YET.
Upon hearing the 8 ½ minute introductory song “El Wool Suite”, I was reminded why my initial impressions weren’t unfounded. But at least there’s no vocals on this one. The rest of side one is absolutely awful. Almost all Williamson songs (except for the cowboy parody “Bad Sadie Lee” done by someone named Janet Shankman), Robin is the kind of singer who doubles or triples the length of a two minute song by stretching one syllable words like “time” into about 15 syllables by trilling and scatting up and down his limited register. Have I mentioned that his songs are precious? Oh yes, they are. “The Juggler’s Song” (TERRIBLY sung, by the way) tries to use a juggler as an analogy for power, substance, and time, and fails miserably. Side one closer “Queen of Love” goes on FOREVER, with Tom Constanten’s (early experimental associate of the Grateful Dead) string arrangement being the only positive.
Side Two isn’t as rough, as it’s more Heron’s material (not that it’s GOOD, mind you, but it’s a far cry better than side one’s crap). Instrumentals kick off and close the side (with “Partial Belated Overture” sounding like something Mike Oldfield would later do, and the full band sound of “Bridge Theme” providing a nice contrast to all the acoustic noodling, respectively). In between, though - junk. I like Heron’s piano playing in “Light in Time of Darkness” but then he starts braying his vocals, and I try to tune it out as best I can. Throughout the record, the boys are accompanied by their girlfriends, Rose & Licorice. Rose plays a decent bass and sings poorly, and Licorice plays drums and, uh, spoons, and sings REALLY poorly. I fell asleep during the absurd “Hiren Pawnitof”, but woke up (heh – “I Woke Up” was the album they released prior to this one. It’s also the title of Jandek’s strangest release, but that’s for another review) when the electricity of “Bridge Theme” hit. Then I fell back asleep again.
I don’t want to finish listening to this. The first record sucked hard, and the second doesn’t look like its going to be better (side 3 is almost ALL Williamson songs) and the LP ends with a 15 minute thing called “Rainbow”. God help me in the future.
Okay, just finished. Was it as bad as I’d worried? Almost. The first song on side 3, “Bridge Song”, features some of the worst group vocals I’ve heard from any band. On lead vocals, Licorice sings in an ugly high registerr, matched only by Mike’s off-pitch howl. Following this time waster is an acoustic guitar solo from Robin that goes nowhere, and leads into the acapella “Invocation” that presents Robin at his absolute worst. But then a curious thing happens: the rest of the side is (comparatively) non-offensive. Sure, “Robot Blues” is just Robin banging away at the piano doing a “future blues” parody, but it’s much more tolerable than its immediate predecessor. The side 3 closer, “The Puppet Song”, is NOT BAD. The lyrics are as dippy as all those before, but a little more clever, and the music is quite nice. And this is from Robin – maybe I’ve misjudged him.
No I haven’t, because side four is abysmal. Beginning with Robin’s now patented shrill AAAAhhhhahAHHHHehhhhhAYYYYYY, moving through an inconsequential solo from Licorice (at least it’s not falsetto this time), and ending with the feel-good-send-the-hippies-back-to-the-park-happy “Rainbow”, I’m spent. I don’t want any more music today. Was this music? Was this supposed to be good? Am I just not getting it?
VERDICT: Netflix sent me all 3 discs of the “Macho Man” Randy Savage retrospective; I should’ve been watching that instead.
VIDEO: this is a lot more coherent than anything on “U”. U probably won’t like it. I don’t.