on 7 January 2009
The first thing you notice about this gem is of course the cover photo, evidently from the 'I Looked Up' photoshoot, judging from the clothing worn by Robin, Mike, Likky & Rose. I always loved the back cover of the original UK vinyl of I Looked Up, and it's nice to see a photo from the same session. The whole package is lovingly put together with many other unseen (by me, at least) photos. I particularly enjoyed the skating ones, Malcolm and Stone Monkey and the back cover table pic where the band are at their most photogenic.
And there's much more to the package. The informative and illuminating sleeve notes reveal the sources of the tracks and other info, and there are notes on the restoration and cleaning-up of sound. Indeed, when you first listen to this double CD, you notice the sound quality is amazingly good, even on the tracks that are not from conventional studio sources.
A look at the track list tells us we're in for a journey almost right through the history of the ISB by way of mostly previously unheard or alternate material, from pre-5000 Spirits to outtakes from Earthspan.
I've heard the Balmore Hoard tapes before, but never as clear as the version of Relax Your Mind by Robin which opens CD1. And by the time I got to Mike's Lover Man (track 2 - a fully realised outtake from 5000 Spirits), I realised I was going to be treated to hearing for the first time material by my heroes at the height of their vocal powers. What really shines out for me is the quality of Robin's & Mike's voices, their power and expression. I listened with a grin and trod lightly on air, just like coming out of an ISB concert circa 1970.
A special mention for All Too Much For Me. I'd heard other versions and always considered it one of Robin's more throwaway pieces, but here on this WT & TBH outtake, it's a more subtle version in keeping with that classic double album. Indeed, including the two Blind Willie Johnston songs that accompany it, it would have fitted the spiritual mood of Wee Tam very well, methinks. Both Robin & Mike in fine voice again.
The Iron Stone appears as an alternative take from the Big Huge and is fluent and delightful, before we get the four tracks from the WBAI US radio session: The Head (a cathartic recitation by Robin over effects by Mike & Likky - lyric reproduced in booklet alongside Robin's illustration originally included on the WT &TBH insert), an extended Douglas Traherne Harding from Mike (surely one of his best), a version of See All The People superior to the Be Glad one with Likky featuring on percussion on a jam coda and CD 1 ends with an intense and powerful Maya, featuring the intended, extended ending cut from the Big Huge.
Further delights await us on CD2. The instrumental Penwern begins (an outtake from Be Glad which I'd never heard anywhere before), followed by two absolute gems from a live recording of U and missed off the album: El Ratto and Long Long Road. It's said you can't fully appreciate El Ratto without seeing Malcolm perform it, but the laughter fair spills from Robin's guitar and vocal, and Mike delivers one of his most soulful vocals ever on the magnificent Long Long Road, here only just one verse with his guitar, but what a verse! These U recordings suffer a little from the recording quality, but a tremendous job has been done to raise Robin & Mike's voices and guitars above any background noise or mechanical interference.
All Writ Down has long been a favourite of mine and the version here is neither the mono one from the Be Glad soundtrack nor the B-Side of the Big Ted single, but yet a third, and probably the best.
This is followed by Queen Juanita and Her Fishermen Lover. I have the Seasons They Change LP on which this I Looked Up outtake was eventually released, but I guess a lot of people won't have this otherwise elusive track. Although light in subject matter, it is an epic 16 minute tour de force for all four members of the band, and features some beautiful melodies and arrangements. The sleeve notes are enlightening about the many weird and varied instruments that (I think) the ISB used exclusively for this song.
Poerty Play #1 is something I've not heard since I saw it live in concert.
Well, the dancing was live, the music (by Mike, with Stan Schnier and Susie Watson-Taylor) pre-recorded. This goes through several moods, abstract and experimental, including a particularly delightful one with Mike chanting.
The album ends with two Earthspan outtakes: Likky's Secret Temple appears in a more assured version than on the previously heard BBC session recording. She bows out of the ISB with her most enigmatic lyric and mysterious song, somehow fitting and as equally haunting as Robin's beautifully arranged instrumental Curlew; Earthspan would have been even more of a masterpiece had these two not been excised.
So, to conclude, a huge thanks to all concerned for this labour of love. You may think you have or know most of this material, but not these versions; like me, I hope you'll discover anew the wonder of Robin and Mike's songs and vocals. Together with Across the Airwaves, Tricks of the Senses forms an invaluable history of the ISB to accompany their official albums. These are sounds your ears have lost - retrieve and cherish them.