Saturday, January 21, 2006

I like to folk pt. 2

I fucking love Mick Head. As singer/chief songwriter with indie underachievers Shack, he's come up with some of the best songs I've ever heard, alongside a fair few howlers that kind of affirm, rather than undermine, his genius. His first band (which, like most musical things he's done, was a joint venture with his 12-string-wielding brother. John Head) The Pale Fountains specialized in melancholic, folksy jangle-pop, and were an unspoken influence on all the more famous 'cosmic scousers' - particularly The Las and The Coral.
The blueprint established with The PFs fed nicely into the Shack records, themselves an embarassment of riches if you're into the whole Byrds/Nick Drake/Arthur Lee thing (the Head brothers, incidentally, were Lee's backing band on his first out-of-prison tour). Apart from the lilting, Love 'n Drake-derived minor-key ditties, there was also a fair whack of rousing, electric anthems comparable with Oasis and The Verve at their best. Like Gallagher and Ashcroft, though, Head's lyrics are a spectacularly hit-and-miss affair, and in some cases they've completely sunk what would otherwise be inarguably classic songs.
In a career littered with misfortune, their LP 'Waterpistol' takes the proverbial biscuit. It was recorded for Ghetto Records in 1991, but the master tapes were destroyed in a suspicious studio fire. Producer Chris Allison appeared to have saved the day when he unearthed a DAT, but he left it in a taxi in America. Miraculously, for years later German indie label Marina got hold of this DAT and released it to considerable acclaim. By this time, however, the brothers Head had succumbed to severe heroin addiction, and it seemed as if their career had pretty much come and gone. Somehow, perhaps spurred on by the word-of-mouth reaction to 'Waterpistol', they sorted themselves out enough to write and record psyche-folk masterpiece 'The Magical World of The Strands' as The Strands. More on that shortly. The apex of Shack's notability came in the late-Britpop era, when Head's face was thrust on the cover of NME next to the headline 'This Man Is Our Greatest Songwriter'; it appeared that Shack's latest album, the self-consciously Oasis-esque 'HMS Fable' (full of opulent brass and strings and almost comically 'big' choruses) would be a surefire hit, especially when pathetic specimens like Gomez were reaping chart success at the time. Alas, in a way which has come to define the Heads' lot, it wasn't meant to be...The album became, like their albums before and after, a cult hit with absolutely minimal crossover sales, and though Shack are still touring and recording (their last album, 'Here's Tom With The Weather', marked a significant return to form), they've continued to never quite get the attention they deserve.
Though Shack's stuff has a special place in my heart, it's the record they made as The Strands which is really the bee's knees. Almost completely acoustic, it sounds utterly timeless, and the clever arrangements and low-key instrumentation (guitars, brushed drums, woodwind, cello) give the fantastic songs room to breathe while accenting and embellishing them perfectly. The spectre of opiate abuse looms large in the lyrics, but it's the weirdly piratical, pastoral mood of the whole album which is memorable, not to mention the songwriting craftmanship at its core. I could waffle on (talking about this album makes me feel like an old man writing for Mojo); I think it would be better if I just posted a few tracks for you. I know when summer is here 'cos 'The Magical World of The Strands' is on heavy rotation; but it sounds no less magical in winter. I think the BBC website puts it best: 'They're fantastic songs that somehow manage to evoke the imagery of life at sea, despite being about scoring drugs in Merseyside'. Too right.

The Strands - Queen Matilda

The Strands - X Hits The Spot

The Strands - Glynys & Jacqui


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