Saturday, June 25, 2011

Michael Fremer Album Review

Wee Tam

The Incredible String Band

Elektra/4 Men With Beards 4m209 180g LP

Produced by: Joe Boyd

Engineered by: John Wood

Mixed by: John Wood

Mastered by: N/A



British Psych/Folk Classic Issued by 4 Men With Beards
by Michael Fremer
June 01, 2011

As the liner notes for ISB's self titled debut (Elektra EKS-7322) tell it, in the mid '60s Robin Williamson was singing traditional Scottish ballads, MIke Heron was in an r&b group and Clive Palmer was playing ragtime banjo.

As we all know, the world then went through some kind of strange wormhole and out came a warped universe that turned a skiffle band into the Beatles and an American idolizing r&b cover band into The Rolling Stones.

That's obviously an oversimplification but how else to explain what occurred back in the 1960s? Look at what happened to this group of traditional folk singers!

The group's first album issued on Elektra's more expensive four digit series came and went, attracting a small following in America for what was an album of folky, traditional originals performed with chipper high energy and a nod to Bob Dylan. The multi-instrumentalists played banjo, guitar, fiddle, pennywhistle and mandolin.

After its completion, Palmer left for Afghanistan and Robin went to Morocco. Uh, oh.

Upon his return, Palmer left the group. Williamson and Heron continued on as a duo, releasing Layers of the Onion (EKS-74010) in 1967, which featured one of the most memorable psychedelic covers of the era. The album veered from folky to world music before there was such a term. The songs were far more introspective and drone-like than before and infused with a strong Indian influence.

The album concluded with a wry song called "Way Back in the 1960s" that mimics Dylan while referencing him in the lyrics. "You made your own amusement then," Williamson sings, " could eat a real food meal." That was before WW III of course. I remember listening to it "back in the '60s" thinking what it would be like hearing it way in the future when it would be appropriate to say "back in the '60s" and I can assure you, it is nothing like I imagined it might be—except for vinyl still being around.

Just as The Beatles veered away from poppy tunes, the Williamson/Heron duo deep into the metaphorical woods and on the cover of their next and possibly finest album, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter seemingly into the real forest. The hippie/back to nature era was now in full swing and the cover created the image of a communal band of men, women and children who seemed to slip back in time.

Surely the photo was staged with props but somehow it appeared legitimate and it was easy to believe this band lived in the forest and for all we knew, grew out of the dirt. The music became denser and more convoluted. The lyrics dealt with the big issues of life and death seemingly from a druid's perspective.

These limeys were positively loamy!

And as a college-aged kid from the 'burbs I ate it up and bought into every word and atmospheric musical element. So did all of my friends. You could put that album on and be transported to a different time and definitely a different place filled with odd spirits, mythical beasts ghostly apparitions. It was the most unlikely of scenarios but we bought in and the musical duo delivered aided by increasingly ambitious production by engineer John Wood.

We weren't alone, either. The ISB was big at this point, selling out large concert halls.

Next came the double LP Wee Tam and The Big Huge (Elektra EKS-74036/7) recorded in the Spring and Summer of 1968 and issued in November of 1968 as two separate albums in America for the Christmas gift giving season. Yes, back in the '60s records made great gifts. Just as they do once again!

The cover was unusual in that both the back and front were just lyrics.

The interior gatefold was a photo of just the duo, even though their girlfriends contribute their angelic voices to the mix.

While the cover photos on the American issues move the boys from the dank forest into the sunlight, the music continues its mystical, serpentine path, though somewhat more tunefully. You can almost imagine Richard Thompson and Linda Pettifer (Peters) harmonizing to the Appalachian-like "Log Cabin Home in the Sky" with Linda taking Williamson's higher part and Thompson Heron's lower one.

But that's probably just my imagination running away with me.

The songs contain earthy, religious imagery, life/death questions, exaltation and dark mystery. The music veers from sturdy American hymns to the old English folk music from which it sprang. Somehow, forty three years later it has not turned stale or dated, nor does it sound overly precious.

Some of the songs like the opener, "Job's Tears" are long, ambitious complex constructions, others like "The Yellow Snake" are pristine reflections, while the Heron's instrumental "Beyond the See" never fails to delight and surprise—and that's after listening to it for more than forty years!

The atmospherics are deep and wide thanks to the unerring brilliance of engineer John Wood in his tiny Sound Techniques space where some of the greatest UK folk music was recorded—everyone from Fairport Convention to Nick Drake. Wood's ability to capture the sound of an acoustic guitar was astonishing and despite the many overdubs, the vocals sound pristine. Everything from the silky sounding sitars to the well-textured tablas and other percussion instruments was captured brilliantly by Wood.

While the jacket says "manufactured by Rhino," there's no indication of who mastered this or what the source was. Nor do I know where the 180g LP was pressed. That said, whatever the source and whoever did the mastering and wherever this was pressed, the sonics compare quite favorably to the original UK and American pressings.

Though the images are not quite as delicately wrought as the original, they are still finely drawn and the original's three dimensionality and airiness has been preserved. If this was cut from a digital master, it must have been a high resolution file. If this is 16 bit/44K, I'll eat a compact disc. The thick slab of a pressing was quiet and well produced and the paper on cardboard jacket completes a very nice reissue.

Highly recommended as is the companion disc The Big Huge. I just wish 4 Men With Beards would divulge the source and mastering information.

Thanks to Michael over at  for the exclusive rights to reprint this material.   Stop by for more reviews and features.

©2011 & Michael Fremer - - All rights reserved

Reprinted by Permission

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