Just before Christmas there was some sad news for the Liverpool music scene when Mick Head’s pre-Christmas gig at the Brink on Parr Street came to an early end, with the Shack frontman taken to hospital.
Thankfully it sounds like Mick is on the mend, but the incident was a reminder not only of the problems Mick clearly faces in his life at the moment, but also of the immense talent of the man and the devotion he inspires among fans who’ve followed his various bands and guises through thick and thin.
While Shack have on a couple of occasions been within touching distance of the widespread acclaim they deserve, for me Mick’s finest hour is an album nobody bought when it came out in 1997, and which today will set you back about the same as a ticket for a category B match at Anfield.
The Magical World of the Strands, credited to Michael Head Introducing the Strands, is eleven tracks of pure, fractured beauty, and one of the best Liverpool albums ever made.
Owners of H.M.S. Fable seeking reference points should look to the introspective folk of ‘Daniella’, or the unearthly atmospherics of ‘Captain’s Table’, rather than the good-time rock of ‘Natalie’s Party’. Mellow, with an air of drugged-up langour which never veers into self-indulgent nonsense, the album provides a kind of pastoral, anglicised take on the 60s West Coast psyche-rock of which Mick and brother John are huge fans.
The opening track, ‘Queen Matilda’, sets the agenda perfectly. Its beautiful melody is accompanied by lyrics yearning for a simpler life, “I paint the sails/It’s the job for me”, while lamenting the loss of a loved-one, “And then you… you went away”.
From there it’s all killer and no filler, with a near-perfect unity of tone, pace and lyrical concerns.
Among the standouts is ‘Something Like You’, three and three-quarter minutes of languorous grace and charm. The string section floats along around the melody, neither carrying the song nor acting as unnecessary ornamentation, a testament to Head and Mark Coyle’s sensitive production skills.
‘And Luna’ comes in on a confident, brisk guitar line and sails along into ‘X Hits the Spot’ (another heroin reference), the album’s most immediate and potentially commercial track. Its loping, upbeat folky melody and slightly garbled chorus, “Say what’s happened to all my clothes/What’s happened to all my furniture?/You know it can’t just disappear…..could have sworn I left it there” give way to the emphatic certainty of the chorus, “X Hits the Spot/When you’re not around”.
‘The Prize’, with its elegiac shifts of tone and soaring optimism leading to a furious string-led coda, completes the first five, dazzling tracks. The mid-album ‘Undecided (Reprise)’ is an instrumental (but for some la-la-las) guitar piece which manages to sound like it could soundtrack Countryfile yet still be cool and blissfully affecting. It sets the tone perfectly for ‘Glynis and Jaqui’, another gem. Its refrain, “yeah you…..yeah me” hits a perfect note of universality for which so many bands strive, while the electric guitar which stalks the aching prettiness of the lead melody is finally given free rein to flourish into a fleeting, breathtaking solo to close the track. The chiming guitars of ‘It’s Harvest Time’ herald a return to bucolic, calm folk, although this is undercut by the darker, otherworldly textures lying beneath the central sound.
John Head’s keening, wistful ‘Loaded Man’ employs spare atmospherics to concentrate much of the album’s grace and beauty into seven and a half minutes. ‘Hocken’s Hey’, a lilting, banjoey affair, marries country-and-western to medieval-esque lyrics, and is delivered with such open-eyed, plaintive sincerity that, somehow, it works.
The closing ‘Fontilan’ soars and rises through just over five minutes of chilled-out, thoughtful clarity to provide the perfect end to an album of remarkable scope and grace. The Magical World of the Strands is one of the most important records to come out of Liverpool, or anywhere, during the 90s, and one of the great ‘lost’ albums of all time. If Mick Head never records another note, he’s already given us more than we could ever find the words to thank him for.