Michael Head, Introducing the Strands - The Magical World of the Strands

IN 1984, MICHAEL HEAD released his first album. Back then, his band were called The Pale Fountains and were better known for their voluminous shorts than their frequently lovely music. In the intervening 13 years, Michael Head has released four more albums, including this one. The last two haven't even secured a proper British release. Hits? Don't be silly: his highest chart placing was Number 48, a good 15 years ago.

It is, when all's said and done, not much to show for a short life's work. Yet Head deserves much, much more than a mere jotting in the margins of rock history. For The Pale Fountains, Shack and Head's latest incarnation, The Strands, are the sort of bands who give lovingly-crafted recidivist rock a good name.

Head's last album, Shack's 'Waterpistol', was recorded in '91 and eventually released, after a tangled and traumatic history too numbing to go into here, two years ago on the tiny Hamburg label, Marina. 'The Magical World...' has had a similarly complex gestation, recorded in the mid-'90s and belatedly released now by the Parisian Megaphone outfit. Nothing, evidently, is ever simple where Michael Head's involved; nothing that is, apart from the enduring proof that astonishing music will out, no matter what the adversities.

'The Magical World...', then, is a further refinement of this fragile but prodigiously gifted muse. A Liverpudlian contemporary of Lee Mavers (and, incest fans, former Shack bassist Pete Wilkinson currently figures in Cast), Head's gift is to invest simple acoustic reveries with a depth and melodic resonance that so many rock artisans claim as their own and so few genuinely possess. Here, he draws on similar influences to, say, Belle & Sebastian - Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, his abiding guru, Arthur Lee - but with radically different results. If the admittedly beguiling Belle & Sebastian are studiedly ingenuous, The Strands make bruised, ruefully reflective music.

It's a record for the aftermath, for the times when you blearily stumble on beauty in the wake of disaster, when you catch a great dawn - and realise how great dawns can transcend cheesy clichŽ - at the end of a particularly desolate night. The defining moment comes at the start of the slyly jazzy 'X Hits The Spot' - thematically kindred of 'The Drugs Don't Work' and Spiritualized's 'Ladies And Gentlemen...' - when Head opens his eyes, locates his brain and sings, "Say, what's happened to all my clothes?/What's happened to all my furniture?/You know it can't just disappear/Could've sworn I left it here," before admitting, "X hits the spot when you're not around". His voice is a little like premium Ian Brown, only with a fathomless sensitivity and all the arrogance long beaten out of him. It is tragically, incredibly affecting.

As is most every second of this staggering album. Sometimes, as on 'Undecided (Reprise)' and the strangely upbeat 'Hocken's Hey', there's a distinctly rustic air, as if Head's dreams of a peaceful bucolic existence have become musically manifest, while 'The Prize' has the kind of twisted medieval air last heard on Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's 'Barafundle'. The becalmed landscape is only really sonically disturbed twice when, at the climaxes of 'And Luna' and 'Glynis And Jaqui', Head's younger brother, John, barges in to play searing, seething and brilliantly abbreviated guitar solos. They sound perfect.

A few months ago, Michael Head finally secured a British record deal - with Laurel - for the first time, probably, this decade. Working once more as Shack, his demos suggest a rockier, more upbeat turn in his spirits. Maybe, just maybe, he was finally inching towards the widespread recognition he's so inexplicably been denied all this time. Maybe...

Last month, Laurel was closed by its parent company, London Records. Menswear, the label's most successful act (it's all relative), were picked up by London. With crushing inevitability, the fate of Michael Head, elusive genius with few contemporary equals, remains uncertain. As this album once again so conclusively proves, he deserves the world.


John Mulvey