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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Incredible String Band, "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter"

The Incredible String Band
"The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter"
Elektra (1968)
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

The modern understanding of Hippie culture has been largely misdirected by tie-dye t-shirts, drug use and Woodstock. With the exception of drug use, most of our beliefs on hippies veer from the true nature of the movement: communal living and the creation of a pan-culture. The Incredible String Band is a true hippie band, unlike say, The Doors.

The band’s largest qualification is its adoption of foreign instruments. As the name might suggest, the group specialized in stringed instruments, and boy did they have a lot of them. Along with instruments from its native Scotland, “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” features the sitar, the oud (see my post on Dimi Mint Abba) and the gimbri, a Moroccan guitar-like instrument made from camel hide. As incredible as it might be with strings, the group didn’t limit themselves to that category. Robin Williamson is credited for 12 instruments on the album. The rule of thumb is that if it’s an “unplugged” instrument, it would work.

The band also bought heavily into the idea of communal living, an idea it promotes on the track “Mercy I Cry City.” Perhaps its psychedelic style, regardless of how truly hippie it is, earns the band the most references to the movement.

Layering was a relatively new concept when the band was at its height, and it took advantage of it. The group only consisted of three fulltime members, but the tracks on “The Hangman’s Daughter” make it seem like a dozen. Thanks to layering, the group could work large numbers of instruments into its recordings, and by interweaving them off of the beat, create a very psychedelic sound. Add the curious lyrics and overlapping vocals on tracks like “The Minotaur’s Song” and it almost feels like an aural high.

The group fell apart (critically, and soon after structurally) after “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” but they had left their mark. Robert Plant often invokes the inspiration the band had on Led Zeppelin, and the evidence is in the largely unplugged, fantasy-filled “Led Zeppelin III.” The group’s methods had a deep influence on the so-called “world music” genre, and even bigger on the “new folk” movement. There’s nothing quite like them in the folk world at the moment, and it would do a folk fan well to extend a branch into this twisted tree (in my head, this sounded like a lyric the Incredible Strings might use.)

INTERESTING FACT: The DC Comics character Crazy Jane, a schizophrenic superhero, has 64 personalities, each with a separate power. “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” is an artist who can make her paintings come to life.

The Minotaur's Song by The Incredible String Band on Grooveshark

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