I'm going to tell you the secret of Michael Head's success as a musician. And before you say "What about that old refrain about Shack/Pale Fountains/anything-Michael-Head-touches not making the money the music deserves?" Well, I'm not talking about cash here, folks. I'm talking about what will make Head and his work revered for decades.
It is quite simply his ability to make music that is tender and gentle without being pretentious and precious about it. What this is is magic. This is the new reissue of The Magical World of The Strands from Michael Head and The Strands. This new edition, out now via Megaphone Music, comes with 2 bonus tracks not on the original 1997 album. The release is paired with The Olde Worlde, a collection of Strands and Head rarities meant to serve as a sort of thematic companion to the original treasured album. That The Olde Worlde sits so comfortably next to The Magical World of The Strands ought to tell you how essential this release is as well.
It doesn't hurt that The Magical World of The Strands (1997) still remains a thing of sublime beauty. Surely worn out by the comparisons to his inspirations Love, Head and his band place themselves here close to the quieter moments on the first Lilac Time, to come up with a description of this music for the uninitiated. "X Marks The Spot" is a spry bit of business despite the dark thematic concerns and "Queen Matilda" mines a gentle sound not entirely unlike the stuff that The Left Banke laid down in the Sixties. If the cut, here in both its original album version and in a demo form, is not ornate in the same sense, it still enthralls. "Glynys and Jacqui" seems to be from another age when a band like The Zombies could make music like this and get on the radio with it, while "The Prize" admirably rides what approaches a catchy riff in the Magical World of The Strands.
There's no need to belabor how staggeringly essential this album is. The Magical World of The Strands by Michael Head and The Strands is easily the better when pitted up against Head's old Pale Fountains but that's 'cause production here by sympathetic producer Stephane Bismuth never once overpowers Head's work with anything extraneous. Compared to Shack, the stuff here is similar but somehow more perfect. There is something here -- like on the best early Durutti Column records, or on Richard Thompson sides where he'd push at the edges of what constituted folk music -- that remains so pure and so warm. This is music to be savored but not in a dilletantish fashion. Simple, direct, and then even baroque in spots, the cuts on The Magical World of The Strands (1997) still pack a big soft punch, to paraphrase a Clean song title. The record is a thing to cherish and so it remains with each listen.
Now, what of that rarities collection, The Olde Worlde?
There's stuff like the rough, band version of "It's Harvest Time" and a strings-only version of "Something Like You" which both shed light on how the original album was pieced together. And if The Magical World of The Strands (1997) is one of those records, like Love's Forever Changes, that seems fully-formed, then The Olde Worlde is a looser version of the music that The Strands and Michael Head were perfecting on that album. One listen to the decidedly Beatles-esque hook of "Poor Jill" convinces a listener that Michael Head is one of the greats of the Liverpool scene, if one is to describe the long and rich musical history of the city that way. An instrumental version of "Hocken's Hey" places this band next to Fairport Convention or their folkie peers from an earlier era. The splendid "Lizzie Mallally" would later surface as a Shack b-side but here it's a hint of what The La's should have sounded like on their first record; there must be something in the water in Liverpool to make these two acts so sound similar here.
"The Olde Worlde" closes this collection in a fashion that the Gallaghers would truly appreciate. Vaguely prefiguring what Oasis would do a decade or so later, this 1985 cut blazes in on a wave of upbeat emotion. It's very nearly a singalong with a guitar solo that sears. Just a gem.
If you already have The Magical World of The Strands by Michael Head and The Strands, buy it again 'cause it sounds better than ever now. If you don't have it? You are missing out on one of the handful of genuine masterpieces from the Britpop era that didn't sound vaguely like Slade.
Seriously, The Magical World of The Strands and its new companion collection The Olde Worlde are records of stunning clarity full of moments of seemingly effortlessly expressed beauty. Straddling styles and bridging genres separated by decades, Michael Head and The Strands created a masterpiece -- or two, I guess you can say now -- and will reap rewards from listeners for ages even if the sales will probably never rival those of stuff like Be Here Now (1997) from the same year that The Magical World of The Strands was released.