Come on Jack, let's get you home,
Come on follow me.
Your mama, she's not afraid any more,
She's in the cemetery.
Daniella - Shack
Butterfly - Shack
I follow signs. I believe there's something to seemingly random related events.
I'd had a little unfinished meditation on Shack's song "Daniella" kicking around the Blogger queue for more than a month. Usually that's a sign that I'm never going to finish a damn post and it's time to punch the delete button. I'd intended to do just that the other day. Then we received an email from the Shack camp with a new mp3 from the forthcoming album The Corner of Miles and Gil and I changed my mind. Majestic, hooky, orchestral pop songs like "Butterfly" deserve to be heard. And with the ADD-afflicted music press and many in the mp3 blogosphere occupied chasing the latest quartet of 21-year olds, I take this as a sign my time's better spent talking about talented, veteran underdogs like Michael Head.
While "deserve" sporadically figures into rock success narratives, "luck" could be claimed as their primary theme. Even among hard-luck tales, the Shack backstory, spanning more than 20 years, is a sorry one. Mick Head and brother John's misfortune with bands The Pale Fountains, The Strands and Shack run the gamut--label screw-ups, bad record release timing, the death of a bandmate, fire that destroyed an album master, heroin and other soul-killing substances. (If you really want the long, gory tale, wander over to Shack's Web site. Also, now-departed blog The Mystical Beast wrote a good overview of Shack last spring.) But the important thing to know is this: Head is one of the best songwriters to come out of Britain in, oh, decades. With a pinky on the handle, he mops the floor with all the usual Britpop suspects. Do I really need to name names?
So "Daniella," my original subject. I've read one review of 1999's HMS Fable (US, UK) that disparagingly referred to this, the album's closing track, as "tacked on" and another calling it "slight." In a way, both assertions are true. The song is a somber entry in an otherwise cheery volume of buoyant pop tunes. On an album that is crisp, bright, spacious, epic, "Daniella" is muffled, dim, cramped and specific. It's been suggested that this is Head's tribute to his great hero, Arthur Lee of Love. Dunno, I don't think Love ever sounded this bleak. "Daniella" is a folk song, an antidiluvian-sounding ballad (possibly a murder ballad, though if you can prove the murder part you're a better texual analyst than I am) with a narrative that begins in medias res and a structure that's roughly verse-verse-verse-refrain. And "Daniella" is slight in the sense that it's a wisp, a gasp, the ghostly murmurings of the walking dead--half-life Liverpool junkies searching for things as imperative as lost sons and dead mothers, and as pedestrian as something to eat. Rarely does a minor key and eerie moan of an ending seem as earned or authentic.
If you listen to the above tracks, I think you'll look with anticipation to the new Shack record and, in the meantime, want to seek out the other albums. Fable and 2003's Here's Tom With the Weather (US, UK) are widely available. But good luck finding the other records in the U.S. (Brits can pretty easily get their hands on most of the Head back catalogue.) Though there's a little jewel to be found on iTunes: Live in Liverpool 1992, Arthur Lee accompanied by Shack. (Wow.)
A House Is Not a Motel - Arthur Lee and Shack
Oh! Keep forgetting to mention that if you haven't already, you must, must, must check out The Harvey Girls, one of the cool bands on SVC Records (of Spoilt Victorian Child blog fame). I just can't get enough of them. Now you too can cram all the Girl's Brill Building-via-C86 hooks, Spectoresque drum rolls and coos, yummy, strummy campfire musings and electronic jaunts (yes, all on one record) on your hard drive. The Harvey Girls' The Wild Farewell is available on iTunes--U.S., U.K. and Canada (probably more countries, but those are the three I checked).