Smiling Men With Bad Reputations is Heron's solo debut, released while he was still a member of the unique Incredible String Band (ISB). In one way, Smiling Men follows the path cut by previous ISB material in its presentation of world and folk sounds; yet Heron's solo outing also breaks new ground in that it exhibits strong rock influences, sounds that would inspire and influence future ISB releases.
Heron's compositions on Smiling Men are original and fresh, rich with texture, eclecticism, and good musicianship. His lyrics are equally thoughtful and textured throughout -- the kind of lyrics that make one want to listen. Heron brings in John Cale as a major collaborator on four tracks. Cale provides brass and vocal arrangements for two cuts and adds viola, harmonium, piano, and bass to several others.
South African avant-garde saxophonist Dudu Pukwana wails heavily on the opener, "Call Me Diamond," an alto sax-driven swingin' little rocker. "Flowers of the Forest," an almost melancholy tune reminiscent of the Band, features Richard Thompson on lead guitar. Heron sings in the guise of Cat Stevens on "Feast of Stephen," another rock-influenced piece. And the Who (minus Daltrey), credited as Tommy and the Bijoux, join Heron on "Warm Heart Pastry," a full-blown heavy rock song. The tune, probably more suited to a Who album, stands stylistically apart from the rest of Heron's project, yet it adds to Smiling Men's eclectic quality.
Heron, like ISB, was prone to generating atmospheric, odd melodies, some of which were drawn from Celtic and Eastern sources. "Spirit Beautiful" is a fine example. Here, Heron creates an Indian folk song with assistance from Indian musicians on strings and percussion (veena, tambura, mridangam, moorsing). Other standouts include the mood-evoking "Brindaban" and the lengthy, awkward "Beautiful Stranger," a rocking Traffic-like piece with Tony Cox playing VCS3 and Cale on harmonium. Heron ends the set with an intimate solo performance, "No Turning Back," featuring sparse acoustic guitar and lamenting vocals.