Reviews — From the May 2015 issue

New Music

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I just squandered two or three precious should-be-working hours trundling around music-streaming sites looking for “The Banks of Sweet Italy,” my all-time favorite Incredible String Band song. Dotty, druggy, sublime ye-olde mimsy: you will no doubt remember the arpeggiated fake-medieval daftness of it all. Finger bells and tootlings. Ladies and unicorns. Pointy handmade shoes. Heavenly treacle for wizard ears!

When I finally lay cybergauntlets on the song, it turns out to be from Earthspan (1972), one of the group’s later, somewhat decadent albums, made when Robin Williamson — the band’s most visionary, droll, and profusely gifted member — and Mike Heron, his coleader, were starting to bicker. Blond hippie girl Licorice McKechnie (Robin’s girlfriend at the time) is first up, delivering the opening verse in a shrill, eldritch, teeth-on-edge soprano:

And must you go, my flower, my gem,
My laughter and my hope of joy,
To follow fortune through all the world?
May luck pursue you, my darling boy.

The Incredible String Band © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Incredible String Band © Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She yields, some will say blessedly, to recorder and lute-plucking, followed by Mike and Robin and Malcolm Le Maistre — suitably boomy — singing a nutty Knights Templar refrain:

The sun shines bright in France.
Yellow it shines on high Barbaree.
Oh, be my light of day
Tarry not long on the banks of sweet Italy.

Then, finally: darling Robin alone, in gleeful banshee mode, whirling forward into his signature vocal arabesques. Haverings, stork cries, labyrinth sounds, mystic ululations that envelop the listener like a cloud of Scottish fairy dust — he’s liquid, primeval, the guardian spirit at the heart of the maze. Yes, it’s 2015. Old friends have vanished in the mist. Countless species have become extinct. But here I am again: At One with the Great God Pan.

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