Review: Michael Head – ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ / ‘The Olde World’

strLate discovery can often lead to a feeling of loss; people hearing those half buried treasures years later can sometimes experience a sense of being strangely unfulfilled, hostages to the fortune of an obscure record from which they’re no longer able to glean context or comparison.

Many listeners to the work of Michael Head, be it in the guise of cult heroes Shack or here as frontman of The Strands, are struck at first with that kind of profound realisation that – without hyperbole – one of the voices of a generation has been orbiting around them, tantalisingly out of reach until some sort of chance encounter.

The Liverpudlian’s story is as tragi-comic as any artist of the twentieth century, one which even severely abridged includes major label head fucks, studio fires, lost master tapes and drug addiction. The good news, however, is that the counterpoint was yard after yard of brilliant, exquisitely crafted songwriting which in retrospect should be as ubiquitous as it is mercurial. Sadly, the singer remains the kind of buried treasure only those lucky enough to find the end of rainbow will know about.

Back in 1997 – in between the long delayed release of Shack’s second album ‘Waterpistol‘ and its follow up ‘HMS Fable‘ – Head was back in the familiar enclave of Liverpool’s Kensington area, dealing with a smack habit which it’s claimed he acquired as means to empathise with icons who created brilliance from a state of dependency.

Jaded by the practices of the industry, and after playing a handful of live dates along with brother John as members of their childhood idols Love (curtailed by Arthur Lee’s arrest and imprisonment for firearms offences), the sessions from which ‘The Magical World Of The Strands‘ appeared were funded by an enthusiastic French fan, and bathed in the melancholy of heroin’s entropic embrace. At the same time the same opiate was destroying the last threads of Britpop’s creativity in the nation’s capital, for the Head brothers at least it was the gateway to moments of bittersweet escapism, a muse which hermetically sealed them from the complications of outside.

The re-release of ‘The Magical World’, with ‘The Olde World‘s accompanying slate of out-takes, ideas and alternate versions, is an opportunity for newcomers to get becalmed, whilst those on the very long list of Head’s admirers should ecstatically receive the gift of new songs like an addition to the family. That ‘The Olde World’ fits is remarkable, to the extent that some of the new versions of old stuff represent as much of a masterclass as the originals.

The previously unheard material forms an acceptable a place to begin, largely because it seems parts of a different journey; ‘Finn, Sophie, Bobby & Lance‘ arrives in modest, almost whispered tones before eventually disintegrating into broken notes and a sense of anarchy. That parallel, freak-folk aesthetic also dominates the bygone jig of ‘Lizzy Mallally‘, flutes, violins and tye-dye grooves all moored around splashing kaleidoscopic abandonment. Of what we know, the instrumental perspective on ‘Hocken’s Hey‘ is a lovely, pastoral counterpoint to the banjo picking original, although differences between the side by side versions of ‘It’s Harvest Time‘ are more difficult to spot. The hidden gem though is ‘The Olde World’s iteration of ‘Glynis & Jacqui‘, Head sounding impossibly resigned but optimistic within the same occasionally cracked notes, the song’s gorgeous hollows sorcerous enough to surrender to for hours.

‘The Magical World…’ is littered with such carelessly discarded gems, from the wistfully elemental opener ‘Queen Matilda‘ to ‘X Hits The Spot‘s louche tail of the perils of habit, from lost possessions to filing the void of loneliness, all to a contrarian Byrds-esque arrangement that belies the mundanity of existence. Even now there are still nooks and crannies that seem to have been unexplored – here the carefree harmonies of ‘Undecided‘, there ‘Loaded Man‘s rolling, epic chords, tunes which are a match for anything Gallagher Sr. or Ashcroft even at their peak have ever fashioned.

That their creator isn’t as revered as either is the question which underscores all of his music, not just these two beautiful, timeless records. Whether it be his choice of opiates, his sense of perversity in the face of those who would still make him king, or whether or not he walked under a ladder carrying a black cat one night, he remains however tragically undiscovered for most.

This brings us full circle of course. You should unquestionably be introduced, but then again there are a thousand more outfits neither you or we have ever heard of whom the singer himself would probably say are just as deserving of attention.

For once it’s advice which you should ignore: Old and Magical, the world of Michael Head is a place from which you will never want to escape.

(Andy Peterson)

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