THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion (Sundazed)
I’ve tried with this band, I really have. Like pretty much everything else I review, this, their second album originally released in 1967, spent the best part of six months in heavy rotation on my iPod and iTunes, so this is no hasty dismissal I’m about to type. I still feel, however, as though the Elysian wonderland depicted on the album’s cover lurks somewhere beyond the locked doors of my perception.
It’s not as though there isn’t some good, possibly even great, music here. When Robin Williamson and Mike Heron turn their considerable talents to works of whimsy and acid-fried nursery rhyme wonder the results, with all their tangled, ticklish wordplay, are delightful – see “No Sleep Blues”, “Painting Box”, “Little Cloud” and “The Hedgehog Song” for ample evidence. Even when addressing more adult concerns they have a marvellous quicksilver, shapeshifting fluidity: describing the stymied-by-circumstance romance of “First Girl I Loved”, Williamson somehow manages to be simultaneously otherworldly and prosaic, typified by the line “You’re probably married now, house and car and all”, delivered in an almost shamanic wailing.
Unfortunately, though, for every charmer there’s a track that’s a fingernails-on-blackboard trial to my ears. Williamson’s bowed gimbri on “Chinese White”, for example, is a headache waiting to happen. “The Mad Hatter’s Song” is the album’s nadir, sounding to me like a tuneless racket with severe attention deficit issues. Even the Dylan-namechecking satirical sci-fi nostalgiafest “Way Back In The 1960s” misses the mark, seeming heavy-handed so long after the fact. Added to which, without wishing to get into debating whether it’s artistically correct or not, Sundazed’s vinyl reissue has a hard, strident edge to its sonics that makes the material seem more confrontational than maybe it actually is, although in other details (era-authentic Elektra labels doctored to contain a giant S rather than their original giant E; the inclusion of a lyric insert) the company’s attention to detail is heartening.
It’s not even as though I’m not predisposed towards bongo-powered acid folk, being a Tyrannosaurus Rex fan from way back. There’s a lot to enjoy here but, ultimately, I find my overall perception of the album coloured by the bits I don’t.