Saturday, October 06, 2007


Their work rate and drug habits mean they’d have been more accurately named Slack or Smack. Over the last 20 years Shack have become synonymous with bad luck, bad timing and bad habits; but they still have the knack of turning out perfectly formed psychedelic acoustic (they still sound acoustic even when they’re electric!) pop songs using The Byrds and Love as their starting point.

Liverpool brothers Mick and John Head’s first band was the Pale Fountains who pretty much drowned in a surplus of record company cash and overproduction.

There was a feyness running through Indie Pop in the early 80’s with bands like Orange Juice, the Farmers Boys. Bands and fans wore Hawaiian shirts, shorts and hats. There were allusions to jazz and mutterings about Burt Bacharach. The early Pale Fountains sessions for John Peel included songs like The Norfolk Broads which was definitely a part of that era, nostalgic whimsical, trumpet noodling.

Their first single for Virgin, Thank You was blown up to Eurovision Song contest standard of pointless orchestral lushness. The album Pacific Street was a confused mix of Astrud Gilberto Latin pop and more straightforward, straight ahead acoustic stomps like Natural. I saw them twice at the Hacienda, once around 1982 as the fragile band of the early sessions, short of material and (very probably) in shorts. Second time around I disparagingly thought of them as an acoustic rockin’ Alarm. With hindsight I may have been wrong about that gig (although not about thinking of The Alarm as a bad thing).

Second album From Across the Kitchen Table worked better and contained the excellent Jeans Not Happening, a song, which I think, captures the strengths and source of Mick Head's songwriting.

It’s a song which combines the goofy gee whizz phrasing of someone imagining what the 60’s were like with, with a dash of 60’s TV theme tune and frazzled guitar line. You can almost hear the catsuits. (The Boo Radleys would do similar things in their poppier moments.) He takes the music he loves as a source and then writes his own tribute to it. You can usually hear who he’s thinking of but he’s a good enough songwriter for it not just to be a pastiche.

Ultimately though the Pale Fountains floundered. Their early orchestral stuff just didn’t work when the Human League were number 1. They headed back to Liverpool with an enthusiasm for heroin and a lack of interest in promoting the second album, eventually splitting in 1986 with bassist Chris McCaffrey dying from a brain haemorrhage shortly afterwards.

So that’s’ the Pale Fountains then...fondly remembered, but unfulfilled potential.

Shack’s debut Zilch came out in 88 and is fairly unloved, while the single I Know You Well from 1990 borrows from a vocal from the Byrds Triad (more of that later) and steals a McCartney bass line. It ends up sounding like Rain by The Beatles. This makes it fantastic

Meanwhile Shack were receiving regular visits from Messrs Bad Luck and Underachievement. They recorded their second album Waterpistol in 1991, but the studio burnt down, taking the master tapes with it. A dat copy survived but had been left in producer Chris Allison’s hire the States. By the time it turned up the record company had gone bust. Fortunately though a German company Marina were able to release it…A tardy 4 years later. It’s a terrific album though. A cleverly stitched together tapestry of all the best moves of Love and The Byrds

Hey Mama owes a debt to David Crosby’s song Triad. It’s a tribute to the art of the threesome and was greeted less enthusiastically by the rest of The Byrds. It was booted off The Notorious Byrd Brothers lp in favour of Goffin and King’s song Goin’ Back. Crosby left the band soon after and the myth grew that Crosby was replaced by a horse on the albums sleeve.

And the thing is you know that Shack know the debt to Triad. They know all the stories and they know all their heroes tricks. In later years Shack backed Arthur Lee on live dates in the Uk. There’s probably no better band qualified and they would have known all the songs

The album Waterpistol has a warm, murky it. Mood Of The Morning is built on little circular, intertwining bass and guitar riffs like So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, but with bongos. It has the line “My baby loves happy mondays, My Baby drinks leftovers in the morning, She’s always singing and yawning, She’s into the mood of the morning”

But of course the band didn’t really exist anymore. Mick and John Head recorded an album as The Strands, financed by a French fan. The Magical World Of The Strands.

By this point it was looking like Head was going to become one of those oft cited rarely sighted figures like Lee Mavers. In a last ditch burst of commercialism Shack regrouped and released HMS Fable on London in 1999. Big tunes big promotion and less dependent on the Byrds and Love.

Opening track Natalie’s Party crashes into the kitchen on a wave of Pete Townsend style scything guitar, pilfers the best bottles and then stumbles into the garden to see if there’s a swimming pool for Keith Moon to park his Rolls Royce in it...or at least somewhere to piss. It’s a great opener and the exuberance of the guitar and vocal is matched by the sweep of the string section. The whole lp is brasher in sound than their previous work.

The backing vocals throughout the album are interesting. What works best is John’s vocal following just behind Mick’s, sounding like it’s straining to keep up. Yes it may be a Beatles trick, but it’s still a good one.

There’s some silly stuff to contend with though. The key line on Lend Some Dough is “I’ve got to get out of the kitchen. Lend some dough, I’ve got a sore back and I’m itching” It’s actually a song about buying smack, but sung as a rousing Oliver style musical. All it needs is a kids chorus line to strike up as they go skipping down the street to meet an Artful Dodger in a sulky Scouse coat. I’m afraid they also use the line “Lend some dough, re me fa so la ti.” Ouch!

The anticipated commercial breakthrough didn’t happen, so Shack followed up the album with another single, Oscar. A song about a man in a wheelchair who wants to move to the Netherlands for state sponsored sex with prostitutes. That wasn’t a hit either.

At least the work rate was picking up though. Here’s Tom With The Weather hurtled into the shops a mere 4 years later. More Beatles Byrds, Love and some Nick Drake.

Byrds Turn To Stone is a wonderful song, wistful, and warmly nostalgic about the two brothers “Learning to play guitar, One for you and one for me. Who’ll be the first to learn. All the tricks of Mr Lee”

And of course it does sound like the Byrds and Love. But as you may have gathered I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve bought many versions of Love’s staggering album Forever Changes over the years. The only way it could be improved for me would be if it could step out of a bath of custard, wearing a nurses uniform and announce it was ready for a little spanking. Apart from that it’s got everything I could want in an album.

The Shack release schedule was now unstoppable. The Corner of Miles and Gil was released on Noel Gallagher’s label Sour Mash. They describe the title as a tip of the hat to Miles Davis and his arranger Gil Evans. Now a mere year later there’s a greatest hits album Time Machine out complete with full on tour and in store appearances.

Pop music’s easy. You just need great songs, great singing and great playing. And a little bit of time. Which means Shack have got it all.

Alabama 3

How much you like Alabama 3 depends on how much you like the idea of acid country house music, larger than life stage personas and people who think it would be more fun to sing as if they were from the American South than rather than the London South. So yes I like them a lot.

They deal in the traditional Country concerns of death, God, lust and drinking but spliced with clubby drug tales. On Saturday night live to excess, come Sunday morning you pray and confess. The sacred, profane and cocaine in a Mucky Chemical Romance.

They play sinuous looping stretched out grooves with the cod blues rasp of Rob Spragg AKA Larry Love and the holly roller testifying of Jake Black AKA The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love.(Is that cod meets God then?)

There's much fun to be had with the alter egos, the crumpled white suits of their stage wear carry the stains of hard living almost as much as their crumpled band faces. They're a band who look as if they've spent a long hard life in front of and behind bars.

On the face of it dressing up and pretending to be something that you're not should actually get in the way of the music. But is it where you walk or the way you walk that matters the most? Alabama 3 carry it off because underpinning, the subtle irony and the blatant piss taking is a deep knowledge of the music it's based on, and pop culture generally.

Trombonist Pascal Wyse who played a gig with them described a quick chat with a hungover Jake Black. "He may look all over the place, but talking to him leaves you feeling like you have never read a book, seen a film or listened to a CD in your life."

Debut album Exile On Coldharbour Lane came out in 97 with the band boasting that "We spent half of our advance from Geffen on various contraband items and with the rest we made an over-produced, brilliant situationist masterpiece called 'Exile on Coldharbour Lane'. Ever since then we've been preaching our Gospel all over the world. We've got into a whole bunch of trouble and met a whole bunch of nice people. We make friends where ever we go"

It's not only the Rolling Stones-saluting title and cover art that betray the band's ability to both dig and dig up the past. There's a cover of John Prine's Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness that turns it into a twangy boing fest.

Ain't Goin' To Goa sticks the boot into the hippy rave trail and concludes "Cos the righteous truth is, there ain't nothing worse than some fool lying on some Third World beach wearing spandex, psychedelic trousers, smoking damn dope pretending he gettin' consciousness expansion. I want consciousness expansion, I go to my local tabernacle an' I sing with the brothers and sisters "

There's more pun slinging action with La Peste from 2000 with Sad Eyed Lady Of The Low Life which borrows from a Dylan for the title and an unlikely blend of Primal Scream's Loaded and Elton John's Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting for the tune.

In 2001 they did a month long residency at the Camden Underworld supporting themselves in various guises, as a country band with Eileen Rose and BJ Cole and as a gospel act with David McAlmont. Larry Love described it as "This is our chance to show that we know our country, we know our gospel, we know our techno and we know our blues… It's a chance for people to see us for the eclectic motherfuckers that we are.

"We can show the various elements of faith that make up our canon. I love being able to take a bluegrass loop or a rockabilly loop and turn it into a modern, computer-based concept…which is what Moby's had such success with on "Play"…we've been doing for years"

Outlaw came out in 2005 and tries to live up to it's title by having a song called Hello I'm Johnny Cash and another called Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds. The Great Train Robber Reynolds wrote the sleeve notes for the album.

The new album MOR is just released and for the upcoming tour the band's website promise that "Maybe you've done some good things in your life, maybe you've done some bad things. We forgive you. Forgive yourself. Then dress up real sexy and come and party with us sometime. We'll look after you."


Their debut album We Can Create was hotly fancied for the Mercury prize, but ultimately lost out to Klaxons. On a night out, the nu rave Klaxons songs would be all jabbing glow sticks in your ribs and telling you to wake up. The Maps sound is a much more comfortable, sonic duvet.

It doesn't just tickle your ear, it envelopes you in gorgeousness, gets you drunk and tells you it loves you.

Maps aren't really a band. It's Northampton bedroom electro fiddler James Chapman. Unusually for an electronic project the album was written on a 16 track machine at home rather than using a computer. He'd spent years tinkering with the songs and arrangements without playing them to friends let alone playing them live.

Once the world became interested though he was lured out of the bedroom and assembled a band to tour with.

As is often the case the record he thinks he's making in his head isn't the one that actually comes out. He describes himself as a massive fan of Boards Of Canada and the back catalogue of the Warp label, but by sidestepping the computer it sounds like he's used analogue methods to try and make an electronic album.

So what actually emerges recalls the electropop side of Spiritualised and the swooning breathlessness of Loveless era My Bloody Valentine. There's also the grandeur of Doves or New Order at their most ceremonial and the occasional whiff of Moby. The hazy, fragile vocals are mixed low, but the overall feeling is of stateliness. These are songs carried in slow dignified elves.

The songs do all follow the same format though. Similar mid paced tempos, and as each new instrumental layer is added, you're never surprised by the actual sound or where it sits. So it's not revolutionary but it does sound warm, welcoming and just absolutely "right". Each song is cut from the same cloth, but you do end up with a wardrobe of good suits....And so easy to wear!

There's been a frugal approach to the lyrics to. The complete lyrics to Back And Forth are "The Sounds. They separated. Back and forth to you." More of a cryptic crossword clue than a lyric.

When You Leave is also on the shorter side of brief. "When you leave. I ain't coming. What you have comes to nothing"

He's not only a man of few words. He's often a man of the same few words. The line "We can create I say" from opening track So High So Low reappears on Liquid Sugar as "Now we can create".

"Need help to cut on through" from To The Sky resurfaces as "You can try to cut it down" on Lost My Soul. In his defence I'm sure Chapman would be the first to argue that the lyrics are just another layer in themselves and that even the vocals are there to suggest a feeling rather than being a burning statement that just has to get out or the singer will combust.

A sentiment eloquently summed up by James Brown in Hot Pants Road.

The album was co-produced by Valgeir Sigurdsson and mixed by Ken Thomas who have also worked with Bjork and Sigur Ros respectively. So no strangers to the strange then.

So Low So High contains a sample from, Theme From A Teenage Opera by Mark Wirtz. This was the was the b side to Keith West's frankly bonkers 60's single Grocer Jack.

So Low So High follows the "quiet LOUD quiet" formula of the Pixies, but with treated brass fanfares, while You Don't Know Her Name has a Pixies type bass line.

The majestic Elouise approaches the "quiet LOUD quiet" trick from a different angle, using discordant throbbing synths for the LOUD part. When they stop the song itself just snaps into focus with the equivalent of the quiet part. It's the sound itself that's doing the trick rather than the volume. It's a really good effect and the song's great too!

The album does sound so overwhelmingly lovely that dwelling on any negative or critical feelings I have about it just make me feel a bit ungrateful. Like the swinish brute from a romantic tale who just doesn't appreciate the beauty and charms of the silky tressed heroine.

But here's the thing..

..I think it's going to end up as dinner party music, on adverts and voiceover music. I think we'll all feel worse about Maps because of it. Which is a shame, and a bit unfair.