Here's Tom with the Weather

For the first time, Shack have returned from another lengthy absence with no hard luck stories of lost albums in cars and drug problems but just a new album of quite incredible beauty. Recorded in North Wales in a couple of months earlier this year, Here's Tom With The Weather has none of the production sheen of HMS Fable, their last major label funded album but is closer to the organic sound of both their early '90s lost classic Waterpistol and 1997's Michael Head and the Strands. It's the songs that matter here and each one strengthens the view held by many that Mick Head is one of this country's most consistent and finest songwriters over the past 20 odd years. With brother John also contributing three songs to the pot and showing a greater variety of guitar playing than on previous records, this album is probably their most consistent and rewarding to date.

Opening with the lazy acoustic, ´As long as I've got you', Mick sings of kitchen sink humdrum, and concludes, ´morning papers soaking from the rain but as long as I've got you. ´Byrds turns to stone' appears to be Mick's open letter of love and thanks to his brother for sticking by him throughout all the troubles of the past. ´How can you shine so bright and still you shine for me'. Continuing on to reference Byrds tracks, of learning to play the guitar together stuck in their ´ma's old back room'. Mick's vocals have such depth and feeling, that one can't help but be affected by the touching sentiments within. Perhaps it's because the band has always skirted on the outskirts of full-on chart success and huge financial reward despite continuing critical acclaim, they have never resorted to the clichés of many so-called contemporaries like Gallagher, Weller, et al. In fact, Noel Gallagher has often spoken of his difficulty in writing songs born of his everyday working class upbringing since his fame and often seems disappointed that he can't go back (even though he still tries) to the subjects of the songs which brought him his wealth.

´On the terrace', a live staple since the HMS Fable dates of 1999 and which is the closest here to the outright pop sensibilities of ´Natalies Party' and ´Pull together' of that album. ´Meant to be' sits in the middle of the album and is possibly Mick's finest hour. Full of characters and hard luck stories, ´Jamies on the run, shooting stuff for fun', Mick's returning perhaps to his lost days and months of heroin use, previously used on ´Streets of Kenny' and much of the Strands album. But here, Mick now clean still talks of the feelings associated with the drug, telling the characters not to ´lose control tonight because what it's like is in a lullaby'. The song develops with a knowing nod to their hero, Arther Lee's Love, introducing a stunning horn section taking the original melody of the track on to higher levels beyond Forever Changes, finishing in a crescendo of guitars, horns and drums. You won't hear songwriting at this level anywhere else this year, certainly not by anyone already established.

John's songs range from the Byrdsian ´Miles apart' to the pure baroque guitar pop of ´Carousel'. Soaked in strings but not in the 90's Britpop sense of using them to obscure the apparent lack of a melody or even a song, John's voice adds warmth to this pretty love song. Surely, the ratio of Mick's songs to John's songs on future Shack albums will continue to become more equal. John's third song, ´Camden Road' sounds like a track by a lost ´60's west coast band, with beautiful harmonies, backwards guitar and based on funereal bass hum throughout.

The album closes with the sublime ´Happy ever after'. Songs like this are just not written anymore, it's reminiscent of an old Broadway showstopper with the closing lines, ´New York, New York, it's a wonderful town'. Mick sings lyrics of such optimism not in the blind sense but still with a certain melancholy. ´One and one is tinged with laughter, we'll be happy ever after'.

Here's Tom With The Weather is up there with Shack and Pale Fountains greatest work and whereas only a fool would predict world wide fame on the band after so many false starts, it has such quality that given some kind of airplay in addition to the expected glowing reviews and live shows could become something of a slowburner throughout the summer and autumn months. If the David Gray crowd could only get to hear songs like these they would wonder what they'd been missing all these years. It would be nice for the band to remain on a label such as the current North Country who obviously have such faith in the band's work as to let them record on their own with no interference or the hiring of big name producers, which only served to dilute the songs on the still great HMS Fable.

© 2003 Mark Davies