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The Incredible String Band - The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion CD (album) cover


The Incredible String Band


Prog Folk

3.84 | 45 ratings

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3 stars The Incredible String Band saw founding member Clive Palmer depart before this release on a journey of personal discovery in India (and later to form both the Famous Jug Band and C.O.B.); but they would add Robin Williamson’s girlfriend Licorice McKechnie and take on help in the form of the Pentangle’s Danny Thompson, Eastern instrumental guru Nazir Jairazbhoy and Joe Boyd’s UFO Club manager Hoppy Hopkins on piano for an overall much more robust, psychedelic and modern sound than anything on their self-titled debut. Hopkins would be in jail for possession of marijuana by the time this record released, and the recently-deceased Jairazbhoy would be off to complete his PhD in folk music and on his way to a lengthy professorship at UCLA in the U.S. For the band’s third album they would add Shirley Collins’ sister Dolly briefly, as well as jazz harpist David Snell, but the rest of their guests would be gone (although Thompson would have a longstanding relationship with the band).

In my opinion this record represents the peak of the band’s creative period, which arguably lasted only until around the time they appeared for a disappointing and delayed set at Woodstock. Williamson and Mike Heron split the songwriting almost evenly with Williamson penning seven of the tracks finally included versus six for Heron. Boyd wrote in his ‘White Bicycles’ biography that there was a lot of dissention and disagreement between the two over which songs to include and how each should be arranged, but in the end the creative tension would produce something of an acid folk gem and possibly the first truly folk-tinged progressive psych album of the era.

Williamson displays his measurable talent for turning traditional British-inspired folk arrangements into wandering and intricate acid-dripping vignettes, complete with fanciful and ethereal themes and clever lyrical twists; while Heron ended up contributing the more memorable tracks including an incredibly innovative and almost calypso-sounding "The Hedgehog's Song" as well as the brief but tightly-constructed folk icon "You Know What You Could Be".

For his part, Williamson leverages Jairazbhoy’s Indian strings and percussion for the spiritual and laconic "The Mad Hatter's Song" as well as the wordy but beautiful ballad “First Girl I Loved”, a song that challenges even today the notion of what a folk ballad should be capable of. His unrhymed poetry and jangling mandolin on that offering fit neither an Eastern nor a psychedelic mold, but instead stretch acoustic folk into something that approaches an almost American sound (especially the vocals) and I suspect is imbued with more of Joe Boyd’s production influence than Williamson would care to admit.

The last parts of the album are somewhat disjointed in their sequencing, with the recorder and percussion laden “Gently Tender” falling between a staid folk tune (“My Name is Death”) and the hippy anthem “Way Back in the 1960s”, which today probably belongs on some flashback documentary of the late seventies (and maybe someday will be used that way).

Overall there aren’t any weak songs here, although a couple like “The Eyes of Fate” and “Blues for the Muse” are not quite as strong as the rest of the songs. I’d say this is a very solid three star record, but I can’t quite come to bring myself to give it four as much as I’d like to. This is my most recommended album for anyone new to the band though, followed immediately by “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” which isn’t quite as strong folkwise in my opinion but will likely have the broader appeal between the two. Well recommended to prog folk fans as well as people who just like late sixties music in general.


ClemofNazareth | 3/5 |


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