The Incredible String Band


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Earthspan Review

by Wilson Neate

At their peak in the late '60s, the Incredible String Band were wildly eclectic and virtually unclassifiable. Their blend of world folk musics and whimsical psychedelia made records like The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter sometimes deeply enigmatic but always absolutely compelling. By the time of 1972's Earthspan, however, the band was past its innovative prime and losing momentum. The core duo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron remained in place, although both had already released solo albums and the latter's rock orientation would soon place a strain on the band's creative cohesion; Rose Simpson had left in 1971, with Malcolm Le Maistre joining the group, and Licorice McKechnie would quit after this album. Earlier ISB records offered listeners a glimpse into a unique, occasionally esoteric world of kaleidoscopic sounds and images; Earthspan is a more mundane, one-dimensional affair. It eschews the non-Western sensibilities and the ethnic instrumentation that distinguished the ISB's most captivating work, instead drawing only on European and American traditions. Whereas the ornate "Banks of Sweet Italy" and the mournful "Sailor and the Dancer" are nautical folk songs, "Black Jack David" (reprised from I Looked Up) is a hand-clapping bluegrass fiddle stomp, and "Moon Hang Low" a bland pastiche of early jazz. Some of the strongest tracks benefit from an injection of electricity into the predominantly acoustic arrangements: Le Maistre's "My Father Was a Lighthouse Keeper," the bluesy Van Morrison-esque "Restless Night" and the stirring, multi-part "Sunday Song," on which Heron and McKechnie trade vocals throughout the track's shifting moods and tempos. While this is a solid record with some great moments, overall it lacks the mystery, the idiosyncrasy and the degree of eclecticism which originally accounted for the band's singular personality, and instead settles for rather unremarkable folk-rock.

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