The Incredible String Band

Across the Airwaves: BBC Radio Recordings 1969-1974

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While 20 of these 33 tracks had been previously released before this CD was issued in 2007, this two-disc set is undoubtedly the most comprehensive anthology of the Incredible String Band's BBC recordings. As with most BBC compilations, you couldn't put this on par with the group's best studio work in terms of content, performance, or the thematic flow of particular albums. Yet at the same time it's definitely a more valuable supplement to the band's official discography than is usually the case with BBC material, for several reasons. First and foremost, several of the songs never made it onto official ISB releases, including versions of "Ring Dance" and "Fine Fingered Hands" (both eventually included on Robin Williamson's 1998 solo album Ring Dance); "Beautiful Stranger" (which Mike Heron would do on his 1971 solo album Smiling Men with Bad Reputations); the Hindu devotional song "Raga Puti"; "Long Long Road" (the only song from the multimedia stage show U that didn't make it onto the ISB album of the same name); "Worlds They Rise and Fall" (a Heron original later used on the soundtrack of the film Hideous Kinky); the Carter Family's "You've Been a Friend to Me"; "Secret Temple," co-written by Licorice McKechnie; "Oh Did I Love a Dream," a Malcolm Le Maistre tune; and assorted other Williamson and Heron songs that didn't find a home in the standard ISB catalog.

Of perhaps more importance, no matter what you think of the Incredible String Band, the sheer stylistic range of the material here is astonishing. That could be said of many (and maybe most) of their official albums, too, but here it's even more eclectic. Perhaps that's because of the five-year chronological span of the set, which encompasses seven different lineups of the band (though Williamson and Heron are always present); perhaps it's also because they might have been inclined to put in a few off-the-wall items and side trips on their radio sessions that weren't top candidates for their studio releases. There's raga rock, rock-less raga-informed songs, relatively ordinary wistful folk-rock, amiable country barroom rambles, medieval-flavored minstrelsy, really spaced out quasi-world music/folk fusions, a cappella hymns, bluesy boogie, Cajun, a 12-minute suite ("Darling Belle"), and more. Yes, some of their oddest ventures are cringeworthy on occasion, particularly when they adopt fake Chinese accents for "Willow Pattern" (another Williamson song that, perhaps fortunately, never made it onto vinyl). But there's also an engaging merry looseness that, on some levels, makes this more accessible to casual listeners than much of their more familiar, official discography. In addition, the sound quality is reasonable-to-excellent throughout; although the packaging is careful to note that some of these tracks are off-air recordings not made from the best sources, even the fidelity on those is quite satisfactorily listenable. Add marvelously detailed liner notes (including complete information on their 1967-1974 sessions, though it's unfortunate that a few of these don't survive in releasable fidelity), and you have a collection that's recommended to all Incredible String Band fans, not just completists.

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