t’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 baboon-esque 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.
Reviewed by: Nick Southall
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01