On first hearing HMS Fable

DECLARATION OF COMPETING INTEREST Michael Head can do no wrong in my eyes. If there are faults with this album or his previous ones, then I lay them at the feet of other people: Virgin A & R men, Ian Broudie, Graeme Souness. I shall almost certainly keep coming back to this album, until I can't live without it, preferring to see the character of the songs rather than any defects in production or approach.

PERFORMANCE The intimacy of The magical world of the Strands is missing, the softness of Mick's voice as compared to the rougher-hewn singing on H.M.S. Fable, the delicate instrumentation swapped for a big production. It's there on a few songs, the best being 'Captain's table', but the other-worldliness is gone, perhaps inevitably. What replaces it is the old optimistic Merseysider vitality that always epitomised the Pale Fountains and Shack's earlier incarnation, and I still find it infectious.

ORIGINALITY Certainly there are lots of echoes of earlier favourites, and in this sense, H.M.S. Fable is a curious mix of retrospective and freshly minted songs. 'Comedy' has tints of both 'Emergency' and 'The believers' on Zilch, and also threatens to turn into the Paley's 'These are the things' before establishing its own credentials. 'I want you' borrows its verse directly from 'Mr Appointment' on Waterpistol. As before, Love and the Beatles are in the foundations, coming out on John's songs in particular, only his second and third solo efforts ever, so perhaps the influence is understandable. John could easily develop into as accomplished if more straightforward a songwriter as his brother, who inflects his songs with enough of his with enough of his own character to take them away from the enduring hold of his favourite music.

EASE OF USE I was talking to this journalist the other week. He'd had a tape of the album for ages, and was at the Notre Dame Hall show, and we were both raving about how great Shack were. Then he used the word 'anthems' and I couldn't help myself, I visibly bridled. Partly at the word, partly at the thought that it might be accurate. The only anthem I've ever subscribed to is the Sex Pistols' version of 'God save the Queen'. So when the chorus of 'Pull together' jumps out of a typically cramped Mick Head verse, I start to worry. Really, it doesn't do any more than an Oasis number. And Mick has always done more, always. 'Pull together' is compelling and simple, but it doesn't feel right.

MORE BLOODY-MINDEDNESS The recent B-sides to the two CDs of 'Comedy' are as good as anything on H.M.S. Fable, perhaps achieving more by being less obviously structured, slower maturing. 'Uncle Delaney' is an untroubled Syd Barrett fronting Love playing 'A message to Pretty', while '24 Hours' is a joyous celebration of strawberries and a young Julie Christie.

SOUND There are strings. The Pale Fountains' first major label single, 'Thank You', had the fullest sounding strings committed to a pop record in the '80s. It burst forth gloriously like a big band number, or one of Scott Walker's interpretations of Jacques Brel. If you've watched Jools' Holland's 'Later' on BBC2 recently, you'll know how prevalent string sections are these days. They are almost without exception blandly and boringly used, and second only to gospel choirs in making me hide behind the sofa (so that's at least one thing Blur have in common with the Daleks). The Rachel's are the only folk doing interesting things with strings this side of classical music, and like the Verlaines before them, cross back to the other side to do so. H.M.S. Fable is hardly the worst offender, but Mick's liking for Stravinsky doesn't save the orchestration from being generic, where on The magical world it was carefully painted background detail.

VOICE IN MY EAR I guess it's not that kind of album.

MARKS OUT OF TEN Shack's H.M.S. Fable model is a great pop record, but it's no magical world.

© Daniel Williams, June 1999