Wild Mercury Sound

Shack's Time Machine

John Mulvey

You know those people whose taste you instinctively distrust? Who only ever seem to love music that you can't stand? For me, that's Noel Gallagher. Every time he steps up to proselytise on behalf of a band, my heart sinks. Here, after all, is a man whose every aesthetic decision seems predicated on a terrifying fear of the unknown, whose idea of the avant-garde is Beck. If it doesn't fit Gallagher's conservative idea of The Song, he'll never speak out in favour of it.

The one great thing Gallagher has done, however, is to have tried so heroically to sustain a career for Mick and John Head and their enduringly wonderful band, Shack. It'd be a bit daft for me to make claims for Shack as a particularly radical group; Mick Head, especially, fits the Gallagher profile of artisanal, traditional, working-class rock'n'roll songwriter to a tee.

But for over 20 years now, Head has been investing his songs with an elegaic, hazy quality which sets them apart from virtually any of his contemporaries. Like plenty of other songwriters from Liverpool, the stoned West Coast fantasias of Love have been a particularly potent influence ("Meant To Be" is a perfect recreation of the psych mariachi strain). But really, Shack evade meticulous analysis. Basically, Mick Head is just better at writing songs. About telly and heroin.

"Time Machine", which Gallagher is putting out on his own Sour Mash label, is a deserved 'best of' collection; not a 'greatest hits', sadly, despite the best efforts of Oasis and several generations of whingeing music hacks. In the late '90s, it briefly looked as if Shack might creep into the mainstream on the back of the Noelrock boom. A major label album, "HMS Fable", gave Head's ineffably fragile songs some new muscle. NME put Head's weatherbeaten mug on the front cover.

And still, it never quite happened. "HMS Fable" felt a bit overfussy to me at the time, compared with the delicacies of the album which preceded it, "The Magical World Of The Strands" (credited to The Strands, and consequently ignored by this comp). Now, though, everything here seems to fit together perfectly, from the rickety acid folk of an early single like "Al's Vacation", through moist, blokey "Fable" anthems like "Pull Together", right up to a couple of feisty new tracks, "Holiday Abroad" and "Wanda".

It all makes for a lovely album, although I wouldn't be doing my duty as a music journalist and fan if I didn't complain a bit about the tracklisting. There's nothing from their late '80s debut (as Shack, a couple of LPs as The Pale Fountains preceded it, of course), "Zilch"; a record with a fairly unpleasant, dated production, for sure, but with some undervalued songs like "Emergency" and "The Believers" on it.

The Strands' songs are probably my favourites, so it might have been nice to find space for "Queen Matilda" and "X Hits The Spot", say. And while it's great to have a couple of fine early singles ("I Know You Well", which is what you hoped the second Stone Roses album could've been, and "Al's Vacation"), they've missed a marvellous one from just after "HMS Fable", "Oscar".

OK, fanboy whining over. "Time Machine" works just fine. And as every aggrieved reviewer will agree in the next couple of months; if you've never given this exceptional band a chance, try this one for size. And if you don't trust me, listen to that nice Noel Gallagher. . .


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