Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mike Heron - 1971 - Smiling Men With Bad Reputations

Mike Heron 
Smiling Men With Bad Reputations

01. Call Me Diamond   
02. Flowers Of The Forest   
03. Audrey   
04. Brindaban   
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

The air may have started to smell funny inside the ISB walls around 1971; despite their success as one of the most cherished Prog Folk Bands of the turn of the decade, its two  songwriters seem to have felt the need to open some news windows as each one released his 1st solo effort , Williamson “Myrrh” and Heron “Smiling Men…”; the latter is not only one of the weirdest mixtures of styles I’ve heard in one album, as it transmits a very positive feel – according to producer Joe Boyd, it was one of his most pleasant studio experiences -. On the other hand, and with a couple of exceptions, it sounds much more professional (not necessarily a good thing, I know) than anything I know by the ISB, and although I’d hesitate to call it a more interesting or cultural enriching experience than anything by that band, it surely is much more entertaining.

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.

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