Smiling Men With Bad Reputations
02. Flowers Of The Forest
05. Feast Of Stephen
06. Spirit Beautiful
07. Warm Heart Pastry
08. Beautiful Stranger
09. No Turning Back
Bass – Dave Pegg (tracks: A1), John Cale (tracks: A3, A5)
Drums – Gerry Conway (tracks: A5, B3)
Guitar – Simon Nicol (tracks: A1, A5)
Harmonium – John Cale (tracks: A3)
Instrumentation By – Tommy And The Bijoux (tracks: B2)
Viola – John Cale (tracks: B2)
Vocals – Mike Heron
Heron played acoustic guitar and sang in every track and counted with an extended “Help from his friends”, as no two tracks present similar line-ups and that contributed to add to the colorful overall ambient of the album.
I feel tempted to roughly divide its tracks in three categories, the quiet and introspective with touches of experimentalism and that I can imagine in an ISB album, the extrovert and lively that reflect Heron’s experiences in Rock groups and those who could establish him as a Radio friendly singer songwriter and eventually Top Charts candidate, but these may be too reducing categories as the boundaries are porous and leakage occurs.
The 1st category includes the almost erotic “Audrey” in duo with John Cale with two distinct parts, the 1st verse with almost unison single notes of harmonium and fingerpicked guitar, before it turns to delicate arpeggios and a warm swelling harmonium supported by a sensitive bass; “Spirit Beautiful” bathed in Indian mysticism with veena and tamboura drones and licks and percussions with the tabla and jewish harp “cousins” mridangam and moorsing, all seemingly played by India naturals, plus the vocal support of Dr.Strangely Strange in a Raga feel Mike adapts very well to, and “Turning Back” a totally solo piece and the album’s weakest spot, where Mike reveals his limitations with the guitar and doesn’t seem to have spent long looking for a good vocal take.
The 2nd category includes the Rocking “Warm Heart Pastry” which opens with Pete Townshend distinctive wind-mill chords, is powered by Keith Moon thundering drumming and Ronnie Lane’s full bass, Mike modulating with a real Daltrey spirit(believe me!) , supported by a trio of Female vocalists and spiced with slide guitar glissandos and Cale’s dark viola in a track that could easily fit in a Who album, the storming opener “Call me a Diamond”, a brass filled Soulful R&B fest with a screaming alto sax solo and arrangements courtesy of Dudu Pukwana and Mike in his best (and shouting, which is where he delivers the goods) vocal register with reminiscences of Van Morrison’s “Into the Music”; also in this spirit are the bonus tracks included in the 2003 reissue, “Make no Mistake” in a Small Faces or early Humble Pie register, with the Dave’s (Pegg and Mattacks) bass and drums rhythm section, Elton John solid piano, Gordon Huntley’s lilting lap steel guitar and Mike on a few mouth harp blows, and the Power Pop of “Lady Wonder” with the same rhythm section, maestro Jimmy Page slashing chords, screaming leads and slide fills and Mike’s frenzied strumming and again raspy but feeling natural vocal timbre.
On the 3rd group are the powerful “Feast of Stephen” which for many listeners, me included, was, the introduction to ”SMWBR” , via its inclusion on the “El Pea” sampler, with a striking John Cale arrangement – plus piano, guitar, bass and viola duties – the Fairport’s Simon Nicol on additional guitar and Gerry Conway’s powerful drumming and delicious rolls, and the Female vocal trio brightening the “Hey Jude” evoking ending; ”Flowers of the Forest” which flows with slightly changing moods like a stream through a meandering river bed, in a Folk Rock vein reminiscent of Fotheringay , with Mike scrubbing his strings with feel, Mattacks sensitively hitting his drums and cymbals, Richard Thompson trademark guitar fills and runs and a delicious story behind ISB member Rose Simpson who learned so well her 1st ever bass part, that Steve Winwood (who adds a very discreet organ) wanted to hire her for his projects (she wisely refused), and “Brindaban” which is just Mike and a quirky orchestral arrangement with Oriental references and call and responses between the cellos and the violins, violas and woodwinds in a tasteful mix of ISB and Nick Drake ambiances;
And then there’s the VCS3 storm and chirpy sound effects and lo-fi guitar introduced “Beautiful Stanger”, a mini-epic that rests on changes of intensity and colors, a timid but effective experimental edge, diversely arranged parts, either with solitary guitar, prepared piano, harmonium or synth (Cale or Tony Cox) or fuelled swollen drums and bass (Conway and Pat Donaldson) plus brass arrangements and vocal harmonies in an ear catching repeated refrain..
All in all an odd batch of songs which coupled with a voice that is very much an acquired taste, may not easily be an instant pleaser, but with such variety, that many tracks risk to be real growers.