Sunday, 21 September 2014

‘U’ by THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND - A Review Of Their 1970 Double-Album On Elektra Records - Now Remastered In 2014 By Beat Goes On of the UK Onto 2CDs...



“…Ancient Associates And Fellow Wanderers…” 

How do you describe let alone approach 'U' by THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND? Grow a beard, dance around the mulberry bushes looking for fairies, join a Sitar class or just down a couple of pinks with your fiddle-loving mates in a real-ale pub and wickedly laugh at the sheer loony-bin joyous knob of it all.

Following on from the even nuttier "I Looked Up" released only months earlier in the spring of 1970 - this October 1970 double-album of Folk Rock Pantomime has always divided fans between those who secretly love it and those who want to pretend they bought it when they were stoned. Well along comes Beat Goes On of the UK in 2014 - and they want your credit card to reappraise this beast on a beautifully newly remastered 2CD edition. And I for one am digging the Astral Plain and sonic Silver Doves man...

UK released September 2014 - 'U' by THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND on Beat Goes On BGOCD 1164 (Barcode 5017261211644) is a 2CD set that splits the original UK vinyl double-album onto 2CDs (Side 1 & 2 on Disc 1, Sides 3 & 4 on Disc 2). It comes in BGO's now customary card slipcase with a well-annotated 24-Page booklet.

Disc 1 (53:58 minutes):
1. El Wool Suite
2. The Juggler's Song
3. Time 
4. Bad Sadie Lee
5. Queen Of Love
6. Partial Belated Overture
7. Light In Time Of Darkness/Glad To See You
8. Walking Along With You
9. (a) Hirem's Pawnitof (b) Fairie's Hornpipe
10. Bridge Theme

Disc 2 (53:07 minutes):
1. Bridge Song
2. Astral Plane Them
3. Invocation
4. Robot Blues
5. Puppet Song
6. Cutting The Strings
7. I Know You
8. Rainbow
Discs 1 and 2 are the double-album 'U' - released October 1970 in the UK on Elektra Records 2665 001 and January 1971 in the USA on Elektra 7E 2002. It peaked at No. 34 in the UK LP charts - didn't chart USA. 

Consisting of multi-instrumentalists ROBIN WILLIAMSON and MIKE HERON (Guitar, Mandolin, Sitar, Flute, Piano, Bass, Various English and European String Instruments and Vocals) - the band also had ROSE SIMPSON on Bass and LICORICE McKECHNIE on Duet Vocals and Guitar. Guest JANET SHANKMAN sang Lead Vocals on "Bad Sadie Lee" and played Harpsichord on "Queen Of Love", GREG HEAT gave a Voice Sitar to "Invocation" and PETER GRANT played Banjo On "Bad Sadie Lee".

The 24-page booklet features photos of their infamous stage show packed with puppets, theatre mime and mind-expanding visuals, lyrics, recording info and detailed liner notes by noted writer JOHN O'REGAN. But the big news is a lovely new remaster by ANDREW THOMPSON. Many of these tracks are essentially acoustic guitars, mandolins and high vocals - the remaster has hiss on some tracks but great clarity too.

It opens with the 8-minute instrumental "El Wool Suite" lulling you into a false of hippy security with its gorgeous Sitar vibes - but that's quickly kyboshed by the silly English Folk of "The Juggler's Song" - a Madrigal too far for most. "Time" has lovely acoustic and mandolin while "Bad Sadie Lee" is deliberately comical - Wild West Vaudeville where someone's about to say `varmit" any minute. The production quality on "Queen Of Love" is superb (if you can handle Williamson's discordant voice). Speaking of childlike lady voices - Licorice gives it some welly on the lovely Side 3 opener "Bridge Song". But like Yoko Ono's larynx voice - its a love it or loathe it situation. But to me "Bridge Song" has always had some gorgeous chord-changes - there's a beautiful tune in there somewhere trying desperately to get out.

The audio quality continues on "The Puppet Song" (warm and clear) - the same on the delicate "I Know You" - even if it's a tad hissy. It may go nowhere but the extraordinary Acoustic Guitar workout that is "Astral Plane Theme" has always sounded amazing to me. "Invocation" has hippy lyrics that would make witches blush (lyrics above) and yet is strangely cool too. And then the musical stage show ends on the epic near 16-minute "Rainbow" - a chop-and-change mix of Folk, Rock, Pop and Flute Baroque. It's self-indulgent for sure but those Vocal and Piano play offs at seven minutes have greatness and vision in them.

The Incredible String Band would go on to the altogether better "Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air" album when they signed to Island in 1971. To sum up - the unwieldy and slightly fay 'U' won't be everyone's cup of Darjeeling for sure - but for others it's a "sweet song of love" from a more innocent time...

PS: see also my review for their undoubted masterpiece "Wee Tam & The Big Huge" - a double-album from 1968 reissued by BGO in 2015 on a new 2CD Remaster...and "I Looked Up" (also from 1970)...

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