As Long As I’ve Got You
Byrds Turn To Stone
The Girl With The Long Brown Hair
On The Terrace
Meant To Be
On The Streets Tonight
Kilburn High Rd
Happy Ever After
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, TANGENTS, AUGUST 2003
For the first time, Shack have returned from another lengthy absence with no hard luck stories of lost albums in cars and drug problems but just a new album of quite incredible beauty. Recorded in North Wales in a couple of months earlier this year, Here’s Tom With The Weather has none of the production sheen of HMS Fable, their last major label funded album but is closer to the organic sound of both their early ’90s lost classic Waterpistol and 1997’s Michael Head and the Strands. It’s the songs that matter here and each one strengthens the view held by many that Mick Head is one of this country’s most consistent and finest songwriters over the past 20 odd years. With brother John also contributing three songs to the pot and showing a greater variety of guitar playing than on previous records, this album is probably their most consistent and rewarding to date.
Opening with the lazy acoustic, ‘As long as I’ve got you’, Mick sings of kitchen sink humdrum, and concludes, ‘morning papers soaking from the rain but as long as I’ve got you. ‘Byrds turns to stone” appears to be Mick’s open letter of love and thanks to his brother for sticking by him throughout all the troubles of the past. ‘How can you shine so bright and still you shine for me’. Continuing on to reference Byrds tracks, of learning to play the guitar together stuck in their ‘ma’s old back room’. Mick’s vocals have such depth and feeling, that one can’t help but be affected by the touching sentiments within. Perhaps it’s because the band has always skirted on the outskirts of full-on chart success and huge financial reward despite continuing critical acclaim, they have never resorted to the clichés of many so-called contemporaries like Gallagher, Weller, et al. In fact, Noel Gallagher has often spoken of his difficulty in writing songs born of his everyday working class upbringing since his fame and often seems disappointed that he can’t go back (even though he still tries) to the subjects of the songs which brought him his wealth.
‘On the terrace’, a live staple since the HMS Fable dates of 1999 and which is the closest here to the outright pop sensibilities of ‘Natalies Party’ and ‘Pull together’ of that album. ‘Meant to be’ sits in the middle of the album and is possibly Mick’s finest hour. Full of characters and hard luck stories, ‘Jamies on the run, shooting stuff for fun’, Mick’s returning perhaps to his lost days and months of heroin use, previously used on ‘Streets of Kenny’ and much of the Strands album. But here, Mick now clean still talks of the feelings associated with the drug, telling the characters not to ‘lose control tonight because what it’s like is in a lullaby’. The song develops with a knowing nod to their hero, Arther Lee’s Love, introducing a stunning horn section taking the original melody of the track on to higher levels beyond Forever Changes, finishing in a crescendo of guitars, horns and drums. You won’t hear songwriting at this level anywhere else this year, certainly not by anyone already established.
John’s songs range from the Byrdsian ‘Miles apart’ to the pure baroque guitar pop of ‘Carousel’. Soaked in strings but not in the 90’s Britpop sense of using them to obscure the apparent lack of a melody or even a song, John’s voice adds warmth to this pretty love song. Surely, the ratio of Mick’s songs to John’s songs on future Shack albums will continue to become more equal. John’s third song, ‘Camden Road’ sounds like a track by a lost ’60’s west coast band, with beautiful harmonies, backwards guitar and based on funereal bass hum throughout.
The album closes with the sublime ‘Happy ever after’. Songs like this are just not written anymore, it’s reminiscent of an old Broadway showstopper with the closing lines, ‘New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town’. Mick sings lyrics of such optimism not in the blind sense but still with a certain melancholy. ‘One and one is tinged with laughter, we’ll be happy ever after’.
Here’s Tom With The Weather is up there with Shack and Pale Fountains greatest work and whereas only a fool would predict world wide fame on the band after so many false starts, it has such quality that given some kind of airplay in addition to the expected glowing reviews and live shows could become something of a slowburner throughout the summer and autumn months. If the David Gray crowd could only get to hear songs like these they would wonder what they’d been missing all these years. It would be nice for the band to remain on a label such as the current North Country who obviously have such faith in the band’s work as to let them record on their own with no interference or the hiring of big name producers, which only served to dilute the songs on the still great HMS Fable.
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, UNCUT, SEPTEMBER 2003
They’re a luckless lot, Shack. They made Waterpistol, an album that might have been one of the defining recordings of 1991, had the studio not burnt down, destroying the master tapes. Then came HMS Fable, finally written and recorded following a period of smack addiction and subsequent detoxification. it was greeted with critical hallelujahs – but disagreements over the quality of its promotion led to a squandering of any momentum they achieved. Like fellow Byrdsian Liverpudlians The La’s, it seemed improbable they’d ever record again.
Now, finally, brother Mick and John Head et al are back ona new label with an LP recorded in just six weeks and it shows – in the best possible sense. There’s a rawness, a ripeness, a spontaneity about Here’s Tom With The Weather that hasn’t been destroyed by multi-tracking or studio varnishing. Terms like “proper music” and “real songs” are usually the last refuge of the Luddite. These are “proper” and “real” with all the organic, halcyon beauty that that entails.
The opener, As Long As I’ve Got You, for instance, with its distant accordions, wafts in like a breath of sea air, or like hearing Simon & Garfunkel for the first time. Soldier Man, too, with its meandering guitar breaks, showers on you like bracingly damp, strangely uplifting weather. Byrds Turn To Stone with its subtle, semi-acoustic blowback, shows that Shack aren’t just strummers, but possess a fine gift for arrangement emphasised again on the strings that weave unsteadily through The Girl With The Long Brown Hair or on the wistful Miles Apart, one of the clutch of fine John Head compositions here (brother Mick pens the rest).
With the seedy Waiting For The Man-style scenario of On The Terrace, the salsa flavourings of Meant To Be and what sound like allusions to Patty Hearst on On The Streets Tonight, this album covers a range of lyrical ground and moods before returning to the heavily qualified “bliss” of the uneasy, closing lullaby Happy Ever After.
They’ve given a lot, Shack – now it’s time for them to take.
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, NME, 9 AUGUST 2003
Sadly, Shack will always exist as half-realised legend rather than a fully formed one – more of a myth than a band, forever having a toke in the bath while opportunity was beating down their door. Sob-stories don’t make great records though – genius does, and thankfully Mick head is never wanting on that front. from the whimsical folk of Byrds Turn To Stone to the mariachi crescendo of Meant To Be, this record is dense but rewarding; every track slowly unfurls, every listen surprises. Haunted by the ghosts of Love and Lee Mathers – not to mention the Head brothers’ own – it’s a consistent wonder.
Ultimately, this is what we expect from Shack – three years late, out of place and up against it. But don’t forget beautiful.
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, THE GUARDIAN, 8 AUGUST 2003
Shack refuse to be made cynical by circumstances that would have crushed other bands. Theirs is an almost biblical tale of death and disappointment. Yet despite all their troubles, brothers Mick and John Head make daydreams for realists. Showing the new breed of Liverpudlian musicians how it should be done, their unhurried psychedelia, determined optimism and heartfelt lullabies make the ordinary special, the mundane, magnificent.
Created in just seven weeks, this album is cohesive and lean, with acoustic guitar fuelling the longing of plaintive strings and waltzy rhythms that twist exotically.
Happy Ever After sees the promise of a new home, and the love at the heart of The Girl With the Long Brown Hair remains even as the brown becomes mousey and the first flush of romance dies.
Melodies sparkle and breathe, with mariachi horns adding adventure to the underlying sense of duty in Meant to Be. Shack are living up to their potential again.
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, THE BIG ISSUE, AUGUST 2003
Shack’s should be a rags to riches story, only the riches never came. Since 1988, brothers Mick and John have contended with heroin addiction, collapsing record labels and public indifference.
After the dubious Oasis-isms that marred 1999’s almost hit album HMS Fable , the brother’s fourth album plays to their strengths – gorgeously orchestrated folk-pop. Given the cosmic Scouser influences, they could almost be The Coral’s grizzled dads, sharing a Liverpudlian talent for finding beauty in unlikely places. FOUR STARS.
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, BBC (Kate Lawrence), 8th AUGUST 2003
It’s been an agonising wait for the return of Liverpudlian heroes, Shack. When Mick & John Head’s deal with Laurel records collapsed in 1999, it was uncertain as to whether we would even get a follow up to the critically acclaimed HMS Fable. Fortunately local concert promoter, Simon Moran from SJM, put up the cash for them to release a new album on his label, North Country.
Shack have always been the masters of understatement in terms of their musical offerings which is somewhat surprising given the stories of drugs and despair that surround them. This album is even more subtle than previous releases, but in all the right ways.
Here’s Tom With The Weather was recorded in just seven weeks and as a result, we get the opportunity to experience Shack’s song writing at its most spontaneous and uncontrived.
This album is not as anthemic or catchy as HMS Fable; there isn’t a “Natalie’s Party” or “Comedy” to raucously sing along to. Instead the tunes on Here’s Tom… appear, on the surface, unaffectedly simple and unrestrained. But, if you look deeper you’ll find complex and genuinely fulfilling songs.
Opening track “As Long As I’ve Got You” is stripped down to basics, a beautifully crafted song that sets the tone for the album ahead. You’re instantly reminded why the word genius is rarely far from critics lips when talking about Mick Head’s song writing. Similarly forthcoming single “Byrds Turn To Stone” is a beautiful, lilting, folk ballad.
Shack’s subtlety isn’t just about being lo-fi. “Miles Apart”, one of the handful of tracks written by John Head, contains a gorgeous string arrangement alongside achingly plaintive vocals. And “Meant To Be” incorporates mariachi horns in a spiralling crescendo.
Shack are back and in exquisite form, even if initially they do sound slightly muted. They do say that if you sing loudly you will be heard, but if you sing quietly you will be listened to .I recommend that you listen pretty carefully to this for some time to come.
HERE’S TOM WITH THE WEATHER, STYLUS MAGAZINE (Nick Southall), 1st SEPTEMBER 2003
It’s fitting that Shack’s new album (their third? fourth?- the Head brothers have lost so many master tapes and had so many pseudonyms over the last 20 years that it’s difficult to keep track) should be released on John Squire’s record label, not just because of Shack’s musical similarities to those early Stone Roses singles, but because Mick Head, like John Squire, is now a burnt-out old man and a shadow of his former self. Unlike The Stone Roses though, Shack’s myth keeps growing, oblivious to the possibility of atrocious solo records or baboonesque festival performances (any performances would be good, Mick). The longer Mick and John Head keep releasing records at half-decade intervals, playing sporadic and inconsistently brilliant/awful live shows, and getting lost in druggy black holes in between (John Head, in recent interviews, has been eager to point out that he never took heroin, mind you), the more their loyal followers will talk in hushed and reverential tones about the rare and glistening beauty of their records, about how they’d be massive if only record companies didn’t collapse and studios didn’t burn down and Mick could stop, you know, sticking needles in his arms and filling his blood with opiates. With Scouse bands like The Coral currently hitting the big time hard and the Liverpool scene bustling, maybe now might be the right time at last…
But, in between this mythology, there have been some songs, and many of them have been mighty fine. Unfortunately, since 1997’s The Magical World Of The Strands Mick’s songs have been tailing off in terms of quality, while John’s have been developing almost exponentially. The two undoubted highlights of 1999’s HMS Fable were “Beautiful” and “Cornish Town”, both John’s, and the best two songs here are “Carousel” and “Kilburn High Road”, which are, again, both John’s. The switching of the power axis from one brother’s writing to the other wouldn’t be a problem though, if Mick weren’t still the bandleader and chief songwriter. As such John only gets three songs on Here’s Tom… (title crimped from Bill Hicks, angry dead comedian fans) whilst Mick gets three times as many.
After the poorly-produced post-Oasis bombast of HMS Fable (which came approximately three years too late to capitalise on the Britpop boom) Shack have returned to the more pastoral aesthetics of The Strands and The Pale Fountains (Mick’s first band). The four Godhead’s of Shack’s sound (The Beatles, The Byrds, Love and Nick Drake) are ever more present, two of John’s songs copping string arrangements eerily similar to Robert Kirby’s work with Drake, while the brass arrangement on Mick’s “Meant To Be” is so similar to Love’s “Alone Again Or” that you wonder why they didn’t just cover it (they do live). “On The Terrace” works its way through three different Mick Head tunes, all very fine, before it settles after three and a quarter minutes on a clear Beatles pastiche, of which there are several more throughout the record. “Byrds Turn To Stone” meanwhile is afflicted with rubbish, overly reverent lyrics which mar its wonderful, dreamy coda swooned with guitars that sound like harps.
And therein lies the problem; like Teenage Fanclub, Shack are now so good at what they do and so familiar with their inspirations that there seems to be little point in them existing as separate entities anymore. To Fanclub’s credit they at least have three distinct songwriting forces, making sure things never get too bogged-down in formula and homage. Were the chronically shy John Head to assert himself a touch more, Shack would be a much more rewarding proposition. Another curious negative is the fact that Shack also now seem to be cannibalising themselves as much as they do their idols, hence “As Long As I’ve Got You” is a strange amalgam of their own “Since I Met You” from …Fable and “Fontilan” from …The Strands, while “Soldier Man” is perhaps too close to “Neighbours” from Waterpistol. It’s not that these new songs are bad; they’re just not actually new.
Here’s Tom With The Weather isn’t a poor record though. No one plays guitar quite as beautifully as the Head brothers (on “Kilburn High Road” John’s faltering electric motif sounds like a gentle waterfall- who else could do that?), and their old, weary harmonies are still exquisite despite the cracks that age has wrought on both their voices. As for the songs themselves, along with the arrangements they remain sublime, especially compared to their contemporaries, even if lyrically they occasionally leave much to be desired. They’ll probably never make anything quite as strange and beguiling as The Magical World Of The Strands again, but they’re far from past it.