On first hearing HMS Fable

brand new you're retro

Watching Channel 4's coverage of Glastonbury last night, I was struck by the sight of a dj with turntables on stage with Texas. It struck me because, despite his earnest scratching, you couldn't hear him in the mix at all and his presence seemed to make no sense in the context of their forgettably bland sound. And again this morning, Ash, apropos of nothing, suddenly pause in the middle of a Ramones-y thrash to make guitar noises over the top of ... some scratching. I didn't watch enough of the show to discover whether this is a trend, but I can imagine it may be and would hazard a guess as to the purpose of turntables in the contemporary rock line-up. It's clearly a sign, a nod to club culture, a way of saying: look - we've got our fingers on the pulse, we've introduced a modern element to our sound! Yes, twenty years after its invention, we've discovered this great new music called hip-hop!

What does it mean to sound 'modern' in 1999? As both a consumer and a musician I've been concerned with this question for some time now but I'm still not sure I could give you an answer. Since the start of the decade, like a lot of people, I've looked towards the latest dance sounds, admiring the revolutionary spirit of each new advance while adopting a suitably dismissive attitude to straight guitar bands, who with a few exceptions have sounded tired to these ears. But with electronic music itself seemingly exhausted and with its own retro subcultures emerging, what does the writer of great songs do? Sticking a jungle beat under your tunes is no longer a radical option and Ash/Texas-style tokenism is even worse.

Of course, pop music is about more than the advance of pure form: attitude, stance, context and timing are all equally important. Punk was described as re-heated rock'n'roll and it's possible to argue that rock music used up most of its truly original ideas in a period between 1964 and 1967. And it goes without saying that everyone draws on the past and that it's possible for certain styles to seem fresh one year but stale another. Situation is everything. Thus the Jam wearing mod suits in 1976 was just about the most punk thing they ever did, a great statement of difference, whereas to do so in Camden in the late 1990's would clearly be tragic. Likewise, badly-recorded guitar pop seemed somehow radical in the context of the mid-80's, and synthesisers anything but progressive. A few years later the opposite applied.

It's possible, as well, to admire maverick figures who pursue their own private musical agendas, unconcerned by such obsession with the 'new'. The La's is a good example, the product of a strange, singular vision, completely out of step with its time but nonetheless great. Michael Head's The Magical World of the Strands, too, won me over last year, its beguiling, lovely songs seeming to exist in a secret world of their own. Despite the influences, it was for me a valid artistic statement, even progressive in the sense that it sounded like nothing else I'd quite heard before.

But what to make of Head's new record, Shack's HMS Fable? Because, try as I might, I just can't get over its unashamedly, irredeemably retro sound. Why does this irritate me when The Strands enchanted me? Clearly it would have been unreasonable to expect Basic Channel-style sonic experimentation and, as I've argued, there's nothing wrong with drawing on the past, but this time it seems Head has forgotten to bring anything to the party. The influences begin to seem more a symptom of laziness and lack of imagination than any real love of a musical tradition.

It's no coincidence that the music press's recent 'discovery' of Head has occured at the same time that they've finally found a label to pin on him - the lost genius/heroin wilderness years angle - and yet listening to HMS Fable you begin to wonder if that is all Shack actually have. Take away Head's vocals and the smack references and you've got a very ordinary record, illustrated by the two songs his brother sings, when suddenly the emperor's new clothes vanish and you're left with the sort of mundane trad rock that even Cast would have second thoughts about releasing. The record is immediate, up, but too much so. The songs are bashed out artlessly, the band sound like they're sleepwalking through the record and everything is revealed in the first couple of listens.

Neither am I convinced by the lyrics, which supposedly bring a gritty, modern, urban realist edge to Shack's songs. To me they sound as half-arsed as the music, typified by the refrain "can't find the words - but I'm sure we'll sort it out!" (from 'Reinstated') and the hilarious 'Lend Some Dough'. Lee Mavers did all this a lot better on 'Doledrum' and 'Son of a Gun'.

Like I said, context is everything and with Shack now media darlings and the record being hyped as some sort of masterpiece, different rules of criticism apply. Coming at the end of a decade of corporate Britpop, for a generation already too in love with its parents' culture, this - like the Texas dj - just isn't enough. It's reactionary both musically and in spirit.

HMS Fable? Just say no.

© Peter Williams 1999.