A revered UK songwriter and firm fixture of the 80’s Liverpool music scene; the woefully under appreciated Michael Head is someone most music aficionados have never sonically encountered. Through no fault of his own Head and the bands he has been involved with just never seemed to get their moment in the sun, but have no doubt he is an exceptionally gifted and worthy musician. Like the heroin he once was addicted to, his music is extremely hard to swear off after your first encounter; on July 31 one of his gateway albums was re released, The Magical World of the Strands. Originally releasing in 1997, it is an album that falls after Head’s first bands, the soul influenced Pale Fountains and the initial formation of the guitar pop band Shack. The Magical World is just that a magical musical creation.
If anyone is looking to contradict the current theory that all gifted musicians eventually get their do, they only need to point to the history of Head’s career to have the all evidence they need. Head formed The Pale Fountains with his best friend Chris “Biffa” McCaffrey in the early eighties. The band became an indie cult fan fave but suffered from chronic critical and commercial indifference and broke up, shortly after the break up McCaffrey died of a brain tumor. After The Pale Fountains, Head formed Shack in 1986. The band released their debut Zilch in 1988 to yet again little notice. But fate wasn’t done toying with them; the release of their follow up album Waterpistol would turn out to be a daunting endeavor. Just after its completion the recording studio burnt down, after which they discovered that all but one master tape had been destroyed and that tape has been mislaid by their producer Chris Allison in the rental car he had returned. Upon the return of the tape the record label went bust and the album lay unreleased for four years.
Talk about being the gods’ plaything. When Waterpistol was finally released in 1995 it suffer the ignominious fate of commercial apathy. Proving yet again that the UK music business is famous for missed the excellent talent that is right under its nose and had blundered as it overlooked the band. By the time of “Waterpistol’s” release Shack had already broken up. The band would reform in 1999 to release HMS Fable, which received positive critical notice but again was dismissed by and large by the public. Head seemed destine to forever be the Liverpudlian dreamer who would spend his career being famous for not becoming famous.
Between the initial break up of Shack and its reformation, Head pursued a solo career and with his brother John forming the Strands in 1997. They would release The Magical World of the Strands, with a recently clean and sober Head at the helm after his fall into heroin addiction. This album would garner critical acclaim as it chronicled his fall and recovery from that addiction. Fast forward to 2013 when Head would begin his latest new venture The Red Elastic Band releasing the EP Artrious Revisited. After the release Head was approached to reissue The Magical World of the Strands with the intent purpose of provide context to the newly released material and other material waiting in the wings.
The Magical World is an album that ages well and in hindsight what rises to the top is a triumph over adversity, as it travels through addiction and out the other side. The album gives off the aura of overwhelming beauty and calm which sometimes results from opiate ingestion. Like the other Northwestern Songwriters of the 80’s and 90’s most notably Noel Gallagher, Head’s biggest fan and supporter. He has faith in the romantic notion of rising above his working class north country roots. He is not an anthem writer, but rather a bruised soul writing in an ethereal and evocative style. The beauty in the music and the lyric is the underpinning of the release as it follows in the tradition of the storied Romantics of England’s prose tradition.
The Magical World is an amalgam of pastoral Merseyside with the Velvets, Simon and Garfunkel, the Byrds and Love all being blended into its delightful concoction. One thing to take away from the album is that it will deliver something different to the listener with each spin. It should be listened to in its entirety to appreciate all the textures and emotions that are on display. The album kicks off with Queen Matilda a beautiful expansive acoustic tune. Blending the threads of Elizabethan madrigals and maritime themes it has this delightful hallucinogenic haze as only the great British eccentric songwriters can create. Something Like You has beautiful textures and again takes various thread and weaves them into an intriguing song. It is gentle comforting music, blending jazz notes, lulling strings and a trippy late Beatlesque sound. And Luna is more folk tinged. There is present a shimmering beauty that you can just glide away upon even if you are not under the influence, and it shapeshifts into a jam out at the 1:23 minute mark that should not be missed.
X Hits the Spot is the point in the album when the listener is confronted with what fueled the songwriting. Head is very forthright in this song about his heroin addiction and its costs. The lyric “Okay, what happen to all my clothes and furniture, you know they can’t just disappear… X hits the spot when you’re not around.” Give crystal clear insight into the experience of his addiction. The Prize is a swirling song that continues the narrative of X Hits the Spot. It has a more rock feel with layered electric and acoustic guitars. It is about Heroin and what it takes away from Head as he lists everyday things he is desensitized to because of his addiction. He describes the drug as the escape from the “things that get you when you are alone.” The song ends with this amazing cacophony of instruments portraying the comedown from the lull of heroin into the real world.
Undecided is not quite an instrumental but not a standard lyrics structured song. There are no words just sung syllables, the finished song appears on Waterpistol . The accompaniment is scintillating with its strong acoustic intro and Simon and Garfunkel inspired sonic aura. It is the sound track of everyday life and aptly titled. Glynys and Jacqui is a song best described as having a split personality. Parts are ethereal and folk infused, but at the 2:20 mark it kicks into this psychedelic rocker interlude and then circles around to the original musical fingerprint but with more élan. The last 30 seconds of the song truly rock out and are just as good as the rest of the song. Like a short play jammed into 5 minutes it is very experimental considering the context of the rest of the release.
It’s Harvest Time is striking in its gorgeous guitar arrangements. It is bucolic and traditional with a heartfelt sincerity that underpins the lyrics and is awe inspiring. There is also a definite feel of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” derived in the sound of the song.
The standout tune for me on the album is Loaded Man, here John Head, Michael’s brother steps up to mic with a song he wrote. It is an open letter to Michael about his addiction and John’s desire to see him conquer his demons. The song is heartbreaking; it conveys all the love and worry that anyone would feel about a beloved family member who is slipping away into the haze of addiction. John attempts to understand why it could happen to his brother describing him as, “good in heart, hidden deep, like a disguise that you wear to deceive.” It is a mesmerizing and haunting track, that makes me wonder if Sufjan Stevens has this album lurking somewhere in his record collection.
After the heart rendering Loaded Man the mood is lightened with Hocken’s Hey a fun filled renaissance tune. It sounds like a cover of an old traditional folk song that would have included a maypole and dancing on the green as the madrigals play honoring the returning warrior back from the wars. The banjo brings a delightful vibe to the selection. “Fontilan” is a sun splattered floaty delicate song. There is a beautiful reverb vocal that reminds me of some of Brian Jonestown Massacre’s work, and is gentile and trippy. The final original song and bonus track Green Velvet Jacket is a swirling folk infused send off to the album. A demo of Queen Matilda follows.
Usually heroin fueled musical meditations end up being dark and sometimes self indulgent tunes reminiscent of dank basements and hopeless despair. What is striking on this album is how clean and spare the structures are and how bright it all sounds, possibly because Head was already walking away from his addiction. The songs other than Loaded Man if not always happy, operate in the open light of day. This feature is part of what makes Head and Company so unique and noteworthy and displays them to be in full command of their musical gifts regardless of what else is going on underneath the surface.
If you are serious about having an extensive record collection of indie music you should have this record. Each listen gets under your skin as the musical workmanship performs its magic. One can talk about how great this album is; but you have to truly listen to it to understand. The album is an effective reintroduction to Head’s past accomplishments as new material waits in the wings for Head and the Red Elastic Band. Surprisingly Head never performed the contents of Magical World with the Strands live, however there is a possibility it might happen in the future. All in all one thing is certain, Mick Head will be writing songs about Liverpool no matter the current band, label change or year or two he loses in the process. The album transcends any mundane ratings scales so I will just say buy it and you won’t be sorry, it is that good.