HMS Fable (1999)


Natalie’s Party
Comedy
Pull Together
Beautiful
Lend’s Some Dough
Captain’s Table
Streets of Kenny
Re-instated
I Want You
Cornish Town
Since I Met You
Daniella

 

HMS FABLE, DAILY TELEGRAPH, 25 JUNE 1999

If the Head Brothers, singer/songwriter Michael and guitarist John, have a family motto, it surely reads “Wrong place, wrong time”. For nearly 20 years they’ve pursued a personal grail of psychedelic guitar pop through various incarnations – The Pale Fountains, Shack, The Strands, and now Shack again – only to stumble over misfortune at crucial moments, as A&R men abandoned them, record companies collapsed, and master tapes were lost in a studio fire.

This current effort is as good as they’ve been, but again, it’s come at just the wrong time, as the dying embers of Britpop render retro-ism inescapable retro.

Two years ago, it’s antique pop flavours might have caught the zeitgeist, but it’s mix of Barrett-era Pink Floyd, faux-Bacharach sophistication, Britpop sing-along and wannabe-euphoric folk-rock sounds second-hand. It’s not that the Heads lack talent or application, as the psychedelic shanty Captain’s Table shows; it’s just that emulating the elegant Elektra folk-rock of Love and Tim Buckley can only lead to unflattering comparisons.

 

 

HMS FABLE, SUNDAY TIMES, 20 JUNE 1999

If Shack’s Michael Head had a quid for every time he’s nearly become a huge star, but back luck, drugs, record-company politics, unsympathetic engineers or a burnt-down studio got in the way, he’d well…he’d be able to buy a copy of HMS Fable. And it would be money well spent.

Head’s career has never had the momentum necessary to sell a lot of records. But he is one of the great northern songwriters, and the proof of this is all over HMS Fable. Within three tracks – Pull Together, Beautiful and Lend Some Dough – he neatly illustrates that he can do anything Oasis, The Stone Roses or The La’s can do.

Then he also proves he can handle west-coast pop (I Want You), delicate folksy ballads (Daniella, Captain’s Table) and a harrowing drugs dirge (Streets of Kenny), with a stylistic palette that can throw up anything from a Burt Bacharach intro (Re-Instated) to a psychedelic fade-out (Since I Met You).

Retro-pop, certainly, but masterfully realised.

HMS FABLE, NME, 19 JUNE 1999

In the latest tedious tabloid rush to demonise celebrity drug-taking, a couple of points have been wilfully ignored. Emphasising the horrors of long-term addiction, it has been overlooked that taking drugs makes you feel great. If it didn’t, no-one would do it. It has also been ignored that drug-taking has inspired some of the greatest works of art this century. Specifically in reference to rock music and heroin, The Velvet Underground’s Waiting for the Man and almost everything the Stones did that was good. Now we can add a new one to that marvelous roster of damaged goods. It’s called Streets of Kenny and it’s on this album.

Streets of Kenny is a song of rousing beauty, nervously pitched on the cusp between desperation and expectation. It yearns for the rush, fearful of the risk, but is even more scared of how it will feel if it can’t be found. It is tinged with the thrill and bravado of the illegal “Searching for the boys again”, sings Michael Head in the manner of an electrified outlaw folkie “Can’t find Joe or Benny….I don’t wanna bag, I wanna big one”. He sings it with a passion that captures the perfectly the knowledge that the very thing that has turned him into a prematurely wizened and toothless tramp also makes him feel like an angel.

Of course, the joke is that Shack should have been called Smack. Or Crack. Such is the mythology that has been rapidly built around Michael Head’s years in the junkie wilderness. That Shack have survived to make this, their fourth LP, has been enthusiastically woven into rocklore but the true miracle here is not mere survival, but the sheer magnificence of HMS Fable. On the face of it, it’s dadrock but somewhere in the chemistry between Head’s effortless pastiche of his heroes – The Beatles (in the trad structures), Nick Drake (in the strings) and especially Love (in the chilling fragility) – and the deathly bright perspective that smack bestows, Head has reinvented the genre.

Not since Liam Gallagher howled his early indolent disdain has this music sounded so alive. Pull Together is an anthem easily equal of Oasis at their most loved-up and huge, Comedy tender and uplifting, like the missing track from Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Daniella a haunted and exhausted homage to Head’s hero Arthur Lee, and Lend’s Some Dough, a rollicking Scouse Play for Today with a chorus that goes “I’ve got a sore head and I’m itchingI”. It’s about…well, trying to score, of course.

There’s no escaping the shadow smack casts over this album any more than there was over it’s predecessor, Introducing the Strands, but whereas …The Strands was becalmed in the luminous fog (recalled here in the mystical sea shanty The Captain’s Table), HMS Fable has a heartening vibrancy and willingness to engage the real world once again. These are songs from the other side, delivered up with a joy for being alive that can surely only come from having been on nodding terms with death.

It’s so splendid it will make you cry.

HMS FABLE, GUARDIAN, JUNE 1999

Mick Head and his younger brother John seemed doomed to perennial status as nearly men. Their pedigree runs from underachieving eighties guitar band Pale Fountains to under-appreciated cult albums with their nineties incarnation as Shack.

A disastrous affair with heroin confirmed them as rock losers. Yet here, against the odds, comes splendid confirmation of Head’s talents as writer and melodist, completed after a clean-up and the recruitment of talented producer Youth.

There’s nothing radical about their music. On the contrary, Head wears his sixties influences proudly. Arthur Lee’s Love stalk songs like Captain’s Table, Simon and Garfunkel shimmer from Comedy and the Beatles, Byrds and Bacharach are never far away.

Yet the swooning harmonies and gliding guitars sweep along beguilingly, counter-pointed by the emotional honesty of Head’s lyrics, to make a lovely and timeless album.

HMS FABLE, TANGENTS, 1998

On first hearing HMS Fable

When the third Massive Attack LP Mezzanine was released in 1998, Tangents got three writers to pen their views on the record. In the same vein then, we thought we would resurrect the idea for the new Shack LP HMS Fable… Before reading, however, you may want to check Daniel Williams’ article ‘The New Folk Sound of Michael Head’ which charts the history of the Heads, from the days of Pale Fountains up to the present day.

Okay, so now choose your review.

On first hearing HMS Fable by Daniel Williams

DECLARATION OF COMPETING INTEREST Michael Head can do no wrong in my eyes. If there are faults with this album or his previous ones, then I lay them at the feet of other people: Virgin A & R men, Ian Broudie, Graeme Souness. I shall almost certainly keep coming back to this album, until I can’t live without it, preferring to see the character of the songs rather than any defects in production or approach.

PERFORMANCE The intimacy of The magical world of the Strands is missing, the softness of Mick’s voice as compared to the rougher-hewn singing on H.M.S. Fable, the delicate instrumentation swapped for a big production. It’s there on a few songs, the best being ‘Captain’s table’, but the other-worldliness is gone, perhaps inevitably. What replaces it is the old optimistic Merseysider vitality that always epitomised the Pale Fountains and Shack’s earlier incarnation, and I still find it infectious.

ORIGINALITY Certainly there are lots of echoes of earlier favourites, and in this sense, H.M.S. Fable is a curious mix of retrospective and freshly minted songs. ‘Comedy’ has tints of both ‘Emergency’ and ‘The believers’ on Zilch, and also threatens to turn into the Paley’s ‘These are the things’ before establishing its own credentials. ‘I want you’ borrows its verse directly from ‘Mr Appointment’ on Waterpistol. As before, Love and the Beatles are in the foundations, coming out on John’s songs in particular, only his second and third solo efforts ever, so perhaps the influence is understandable. John could easily develop into as accomplished if more straightforward a songwriter as his brother, who inflects his songs with enough of his with enough of his own character to take them away from the enduring hold of his favourite music.

EASE OF USE I was talking to this journalist the other week. He’d had a tape of the album for ages, and was at the Notre Dame Hall show, and we were both raving about how great Shack were. Then he used the word ‘anthems’ and I couldn’t help myself, I visibly bridled. Partly at the word, partly at the thought that it might be accurate. The only anthem I’ve ever subscribed to is the Sex Pistols’ version of ‘God save the Queen’. So when the chorus of ‘Pull together’ jumps out of a typically cramped Mick Head verse, I start to worry. Really, it doesn’t do any more than an Oasis number. And Mick has always done more, always. ‘Pull together’ is compelling and simple, but it doesn’t feel right.

MORE BLOODY-MINDEDNESS The recent B-sides to the two CDs of ‘Comedy’ are as good as anything on H.M.S. Fable, perhaps achieving more by being less obviously structured, slower maturing. ‘Uncle Delaney’ is an untroubled Syd Barrett fronting Love playing ‘A message to Pretty’, while ’24 Hours’ is a joyous celebration of strawberries and a young Julie Christie.

SOUND There are strings. The Pale Fountains’ first major label single, ‘Thank You’, had the fullest sounding strings committed to a pop record in the ’80s. It burst forth gloriously like a big band number, or one of Scott Walker’s interpretations of Jacques Brel. If you’ve watched Jools’ Holland’s ‘Later’ on BBC2 recently, you’ll know how prevalent string sections are these days. They are almost without exception blandly and boringly used, and second only to gospel choirs in making me hide behind the sofa (so that’s at least one thing Blur have in common with the Daleks). The Rachel’s are the only folk doing interesting things with strings this side of classical music, and like the Verlaines before them, cross back to the other side to do so. H.M.S. Fable is hardly the worst offender, but Mick’s liking for Stravinsky doesn’t save the orchestration from being generic, where on The magical world it was carefully painted background detail.

VOICE IN MY EAR I guess it’s not that kind of album.

MARKS OUT OF TEN Shack’s H.M.S. Fable model is a great pop record, but it’s no magical world.

On first hearing HMS Fable by Peter Williams

brand new you’re retro

Watching Channel 4’s coverage of Glastonbury last night, I was struck by the sight of a dj with turntables on stage with Texas. It struck me because, despite his earnest scratching, you couldn’t hear him in the mix at all and his presence seemed to make no sense in the context of their forgettably bland sound. And again this morning, Ash, apropos of nothing, suddenly pause in the middle of a Ramones-y thrash to make guitar noises over the top of … some scratching. I didn’t watch enough of the show to discover whether this is a trend, but I can imagine it may be and would hazard a guess as to the purpose of turntables in the contemporary rock line-up. It’s clearly a sign, a nod to club culture, a way of saying: look – we’ve got our fingers on the pulse, we’ve introduced a modern element to our sound! Yes, twenty years after its invention, we’ve discovered this great new music called hip-hop!

What does it mean to sound ‘modern’ in 1999? As both a consumer and a musician I’ve been concerned with this question for some time now but I’m still not sure I could give you an answer. Since the start of the decade, like a lot of people, I’ve looked towards the latest dance sounds, admiring the revolutionary spirit of each new advance while adopting a suitably dismissive attitude to straight guitar bands, who with a few exceptions have sounded tired to these ears. But with electronic music itself seemingly exhausted and with its own retro subcultures emerging, what does the writer of great songs do? Sticking a jungle beat under your tunes is no longer a radical option and Ash/Texas-style tokenism is even worse.

Of course, pop music is about more than the advance of pure form: attitude, stance, context and timing are all equally important. Punk was described as re-heated rock’n’roll and it’s possible to argue that rock music used up most of its truly original ideas in a period between 1964 and 1967. And it goes without saying that everyone draws on the past and that it’s possible for certain styles to seem fresh one year but stale another. Situation is everything. Thus the Jam wearing mod suits in 1976 was just about the most punk thing they ever did, a great statement of difference, whereas to do so in Camden in the late 1990’s would clearly be tragic. Likewise, badly-recorded guitar pop seemed somehow radical in the context of the mid-80’s, and synthesisers anything but progressive. A few years later the opposite applied.

It’s possible, as well, to admire maverick figures who pursue their own private musical agendas, unconcerned by such obsession with the ‘new’. The La’s is a good example, the product of a strange, singular vision, completely out of step with its time but nonetheless great. Michael Head’s The Magical World of the Strands, too, won me over last year, its beguiling, lovely songs seeming to exist in a secret world of their own. Despite the influences, it was for me a valid artistic statement, even progressive in the sense that it sounded like nothing else I’d quite heard before.

But what to make of Head’s new record, Shack’s HMS Fable? Because, try as I might, I just can’t get over its unashamedly, irredeemably retro sound. Why does this irritate me when The Strands enchanted me? Clearly it would have been unreasonable to expect Basic Channel-style sonic experimentation and, as I’ve argued, there’s nothing wrong with drawing on the past, but this time it seems Head has forgotten to bring anything to the party. The influences begin to seem more a symptom of laziness and lack of imagination than any real love of a musical tradition.

It’s no coincidence that the music press’s recent ‘discovery’ of Head has occured at the same time that they’ve finally found a label to pin on him – the lost genius/heroin wilderness years angle – and yet listening to HMS Fable you begin to wonder if that is all Shack actually have. Take away Head’s vocals and the smack references and you’ve got a very ordinary record, illustrated by the two songs his brother sings, when suddenly the emperor’s new clothes vanish and you’re left with the sort of mundane trad rock that even Cast would have second thoughts about releasing. The record is immediate, up, but too much so. The songs are bashed out artlessly, the band sound like they’re sleepwalking through the record and everything is revealed in the first couple of listens.

Neither am I convinced by the lyrics, which supposedly bring a gritty, modern, urban realist edge to Shack’s songs. To me they sound as half-arsed as the music, typified by the refrain “can’t find the words – but I’m sure we’ll sort it out!” (from ‘Reinstated’) and the hilarious ‘Lend Some Dough’. Lee Mavers did all this a lot better on ‘Doledrum’ and ‘Son of a Gun’.

Like I said, context is everything and with Shack now media darlings and the record being hyped as some sort of masterpiece, different rules of criticism apply. Coming at the end of a decade of corporate Britpop, for a generation already too in love with its parents’ culture, this – like the Texas dj – just isn’t enough. It’s reactionary both musically and in spirit.

HMS Fable? Just say no.

On first hearing HMS Fable by Kevin Pearce

There are those who are against the eighties, and I can understand that. It was, however, a decade that gave us some enduringly fascinating characters. Robert Forster, Lawrence, Michael Head all spring to mind. Two things strike me about these guys: they are all incredibly unlucky (all those great pop moments and not one hit between them), and my own relationship with each of the crucial three has been decidedly wayward.

There have been times when I would have cheerfully killed for them, yet there have been key records that I cannot even remember being released. That is certainly the way it has been with Michael Head and his Pale Fountains and Shack outlets.

I understand that Daniel has put together an overview of the Pale Fountains/Shack which should be great as he is certainly better placed to do so than me. My own overview is very much dominated by being certainly an early convert, and very excited by the concept of the Pale Fountains opposing rock’n’roll by fusing Bacharach and bossa, the Velvets and Simon and Garfunkel, and of course they turned a new generation onto Love. They were also totally cool, taking the A Certain Ratio look (Brideshead Revisited haircuts and the It Ain’t Half Hot Mum baggy shorts) one step further. The debut single on Crepuscule off-shoot Operation Twilight was a massive moment in my youth, but we lost each other until the second LP, From Across The Kitchen Table, and an emotional Bay 63 live show a bit later. The first Shack LP I caught, but I then abandoned the Head boys until picking up The Magical World of The Strands much too late, much too cheaply, and only very recently.

Surprisingly for such an explicitly traditional or classical record, I found it coalesced perfectly with my mood and this year’s summer feeling. For me there has never been any doubt about Michael Head’s songwriting skills, and the low-key understated arrangements and settings here made some of Head’s songs sound as haunting as any by Gene Clark or Tim Hardin.

So, with a hand from the Strands and all the cheap column inches about Shack’s recreational habits adding to the doomed romantic myths I was more than ready for HMS Fable. Reader, I bought it on the day of release, only to be rather disappointed. It really is a horrible record, though I suspect this is less to do with Shack’s input and all to do with major label manoeuvres and budgets and lack of vision and understanding.

It could be me, but I am finding a lot of current releases totally suffocating, with so little space for the sounds to breathe. It’s affecting so many from Luscious Jackson to Orbital and it’s making records unlistenable. Shack’s HMS Fable is perhaps the worst offender. Someone, somewhere, has decided that Shack should sound big and come on very epic, so good money has been invested in polishing and pumping up the sound, and it hurts. It’s obvious that the plan was to promote Shack to the premier league status of Oasis, Stone Roses, The Verve rather than to play upon their cult reputation as wayward wonders. Producers Hugh Jones and Youth, who know how to do such things, have pulled out all the stops, and it doesn’t work. It is not, however, the first time the Heads have flirted with failure in this way. Even the great Pale Fountains’ work From Across The Kitchen Table veered very close to Simple Minds/U2 bombast.

I realise that I am laying myself open to accusations of technophobia and lo-fi ludditism, but I don’t think it’s that at all. It’s just that I feel a gift like Michael Head’s songwriting needs a more sympathetic setting. Similarly, Luscious Jackson should be saved from sounding like Cheryl Crow’s country cousins.

This is why I point my accusing finger at the producers and the record company types. All it needs is some imagination and nerve, which is why this year’s great records have been by Sam Prekop, Pole and Roots Manuva.

I really hate being negative like this. I genuinely wanted to love HMS Fable, and indeed there is a lot to be positive about. The songs are great, Michael is in good voice, and there are two tracks the LP is worth is buying for alone. The single, ‘Comedy’, is vintage Head, while ‘Reinstated’ is even better. Probably Shack’s most soulful moment, it holds the hope of redemption, and that’s worth holding out for.

Let’s return to the technology question. I’m all for the latest equipment if it makes life better. What I am waiting for is the gadgetry that enables me to remix my own discs easily. So I can come up with my Shack disc, adjust a few levels, cut some layers of sound and save it as my own version of the Shack LP, geared to my own needs and tastes. I would make HMS Fable into a classic, honestly!

 

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LISTEN TO SHACK

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

Zilch (1988)
1. Emergency (listen)
2. Someone’s Knocking (listen)
3. John Kline (listen)
4. I Need You (listen)
5. Realization (listen)
6. High Rise Low Life (listen)
7. Who Killed Clayton Square? (listen)
8. Who’d Believe It? (listen)
9. What’s It Like… (listen)
10. The Believers (listen)