On first hearing HMS Fable

There are those who are against the eighties, and I can understand that. It was, however, a decade that gave us some enduringly fascinating characters. Robert Forster, Lawrence, Michael Head all spring to mind. Two things strike me about these guys: they are all incredibly unlucky (all those great pop moments and not one hit between them), and my own relationship with each of the crucial three has been decidedly wayward.

There have been times when I would have cheerfully killed for them, yet there have been key records that I cannot even remember being released. That is certainly the way it has been with Michael Head and his Pale Fountains and Shack outlets.

I understand that Daniel has put together an overview of the Pale Fountains/Shack which should be great as he is certainly better placed to do so than me. My own overview is very much dominated by being certainly an early convert, and very excited by the concept of the Pale Fountains opposing rock'n'roll by fusing Bacharach and bossa, the Velvets and Simon and Garfunkel, and of course they turned a new generation onto Love. They were also totally cool, taking the A Certain Ratio look (Brideshead Revisited haircuts and the It Ain't Half Hot Mum baggy shorts) one step further. The debut single on Crepuscule off-shoot Operation Twilight was a massive moment in my youth, but we lost each other until the second LP, From Across The Kitchen Table, and an emotional Bay 63 live show a bit later. The first Shack LP I caught, but I then abandoned the Head boys until picking up The Magical World of The Strands much too late, much too cheaply, and only very recently.

Surprisingly for such an explicitly traditional or classical record, I found it coalesced perfectly with my mood and this year's summer feeling. For me there has never been any doubt about Michael Head's songwriting skills, and the low-key understated arrangements and settings here made some of Head's songs sound as haunting as any by Gene Clark or Tim Hardin.

So, with a hand from the Strands and all the cheap column inches about Shack's recreational habits adding to the doomed romantic myths I was more than ready for HMS Fable. Reader, I bought it on the day of release, only to be rather disappointed. It really is a horrible record, though I suspect this is less to do with Shack's input and all to do with major label manoeuvres and budgets and lack of vision and understanding.

It could be me, but I am finding a lot of current releases totally suffocating, with so little space for the sounds to breathe. It's affecting so many from Luscious Jackson to Orbital and it's making records unlistenable. Shack's HMS Fable is perhaps the worst offender. Someone, somewhere, has decided that Shack should sound big and come on very epic, so good money has been invested in polishing and pumping up the sound, and it hurts. It's obvious that the plan was to promote Shack to the premier league status of Oasis, Stone Roses, The Verve rather than to play upon their cult reputation as wayward wonders. Producers Hugh Jones and Youth, who know how to do such things, have pulled out all the stops, and it doesn't work. It is not, however, the first time the Heads have flirted with failure in this way. Even the great Pale Fountains' work From Across The Kitchen Table veered very close to Simple Minds/U2 bombast.

I realise that I am laying myself open to accusations of technophobia and lo-fi ludditism, but I don't think it's that at all. It's just that I feel a gift like Michael Head's songwriting needs a more sympathetic setting. Similarly, Luscious Jackson should be saved from sounding like Cheryl Crow's country cousins.

This is why I point my accusing finger at the producers and the record company types. All it needs is some imagination and nerve, which is why this year's great records have been by Sam Prekop, Pole and Roots Manuva.

I really hate being negative like this. I genuinely wanted to love HMS Fable, and indeed there is a lot to be positive about. The songs are great, Michael is in good voice, and there are two tracks the LP is worth is buying for alone. The single, 'Comedy', is vintage Head, while 'Reinstated' is even better. Probably Shack's most soulful moment, it holds the hope of redemption, and that's worth holding out for.

Let's return to the technology question. I'm all for the latest equipment if it makes life better. What I am waiting for is the gadgetry that enables me to remix my own discs easily. So I can come up with my Shack disc, adjust a few levels, cut some layers of sound and save it as my own version of the Shack LP, geared to my own needs and tastes. I would make HMS Fable into a classic, honestly!

© Kevin Pearce 1999.