Known to many as one of the leading lights behind two well-regarded indie/post-punk bands, Shack and The Pale Fountains, singer/songwriter Michael Head went on to form Michael Head and the Strands. In 1997, they released The Magical World of the Strands, a collection of rough mixes and sketches which nevertheless garnered much critical acclaim. Although currently playing with Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band (their second record has just been self-released), The Magical World of the Strands remains sufficiently well thought of for Megaphone to reissue it, along with The Olde World, a supplementary album of recordings from the same sessions, co-produced by Oasis producer Mark Coyle. Five of the tracks on The Olde World are alternate versions of songs that appeared on The Magical World of the Strands, while the remaining five are all previously unreleased.
Playing the “new” alternate versions alongside the originals makes an interesting listen, not least for the radically different running order of the tracks, presumably to maintain the flow of The Olde World as a cohesive and standalone listening experience. The band version of ‘It’s Harvest Time’ opens the set (it was the eighth track on The Magical World of the Strands) and the difference is perhaps not as striking as might have been expected. Where the original was a summery acoustic number featuring guitars and mandolin with intermittent electronic squeaks and warblings, the band version – as you might expect – adds bass and drums and more of the electronic noises to what appears to be a straight remix from the original multitrack master tape. The vocals are more upfront and the overall production crisper and in this respect it’s definitely an upgrade on the original.
Staying with the alternate versions, the remaining remixes are now sequenced in a block of four, with the Quartet version of ‘Something Like You’ leading off. This, too, seems to be a straight remix of the original multitrack although on this occasion it’s the entire band that’s been omitted to leave just the string section. It’s a pleasant enough listen and no doubt instructive to any arranger but, to be honest, I don’t feel that it has enough substance to warrant more than a couple of listens.
In its original form, ‘Glynys & Jacqui’ was one of the highlights of The Magical World of the Strands, a dreamy pop-rock confection with some neat chord changes and some deliciously scratchy lo-fi guitars ahead of a completely unhinged 1960s-style psychedelic guitar freak-out at the coda. Like the previous two alternate versions, the Acoustic version strips out everything but the guitar rhythm track and vocals.
The original of ‘Hocken’s Hey’ was another highlight of The Magical World of the Strands; an amiable Country-flavoured shuffle with some sweetly soaring harmony vocals made it an ideal companion to a sunny afternoon. The Olde World’s Alternate Instrumental finds a flute taking on the vocal melody and dropping out almost everything else except the guitars. Thankfully, the sense of imbibing the audio equivalent of a shotglass of distilled sunshine remains intact and the result makes a nice complement to the original and perhaps the highlight of the selection of alternate versions on offer here. That selection rounds out with ‘And Luna (Acoustic)’ and it more or less replicates the treatment of the preceding ‘Hocken’s Hey’, this time stripping out everything except guitars, vocals and strings but with less convincing results, or so it seems to me. Perhaps its placement, directly after ‘Hocken’s Hey (Alternate Instrumental)’, accentuates the differences between the two versions of each song but overall I didn’t really feel that the new mix of ‘And Luna’ added anything special to the original.
While having original versions against which to compare remixes and alternate versions can be useful, it also allows the listener to bring – consciously or not – her own pre-existing likes and dislikes to the party; so the inclusion of five previously unreleased tracks makes an interesting contrast in that the aforementioned listener approaches them with no particular, specific preconceptions in mind.
‘Fin, Sophie, Bobby and Lance’ is the first of these unknowns – and the second track on The Olde World – although keen ears may recognise it as an early version of the song which appeared on Shack’s 2006 album, The Corner Of Miles And Gil. In this incarnation, its structure is similar to other tracks on The Magical World of the Strands: a deceptively gentle, almost folky, first section quietly gathers momentum before executing a fearsome handbrake turn and heading off in a completely unexpected direction – in this case a noticeably jazz-infused one. That said, the juxtaposition works remarkably well and, with the benefit of hindsight, this is one track which would have fitted well into the original 1997 album.
Reading between the lines of the sleeve notes, it seems that ‘Poor Jill’ was a serious contender for inclusion on The Magical World of the Strands but was eventually omitted as the consensus was that it “lacked a certain something”. It’s a jangly guitar-driven song which again recalls the psychedelic Sixties, to the extent that I was half-expecting a sitar solo. Thankfully we’re spared that particular culture clash; even so, for all it’s easiness on the ears, it’s apparent why this song didn’t make the final cut first time round.
The Magical World of the Strands was a long time in the making with numerous sessions over a good few years and ‘Lizzie Mullaly’ is, apparently, from an earlier session in 1995. Like ‘Fin, Sophie, Bobby and Lance’ it, too, appeared in another, later version by Shack (as a B-side in 2006) so clearly does have the “certain something” lacking from ‘Poor Jill’. The Swinging Sixties vibe is again in full flow but its lyrics seem to comprise the title repeated over and over, although I can imagine it being quite a full-on crowd-pleaser in a live setting.
Penultimate track ‘Wrapped Up In Honour’ was, according to the sleeve notes, “a second thought, sparse, new idea trial”, which came about shortly after the recording of ‘Fontilan’ in 1994 and, as befits what is in effect a demo, has a sketchy quality but also benefits from the spontaneity and simplicity of its arrangement. ‘The Olde World’, the album’s title track, draws this collection to a close and its more grunge-y, guitar-driven feel wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Shack album, complete with a deadpan vocal delivery that Oasis would have been proud of.
Despite my ambivalence to albums of outtakes and unreleased songs – more often than not, there’s a very good reason why some material didn’t see the light of day at the time of an album’s original release – The Olde World, by and large, offers enough to please the dedicated fan (of which there seem to be plenty, when it comes to Michael Head and the Strands!). For someone new to the band’s music, however, the original The Magical World of the Strands album might make a better starting point; and, if that takes your fancy, then The Olde World certainly won’t disappoint.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Out Now via Megaphone