In many ways, the Picky Bastards writers are on a never-ending quest to enforce their music tastes upon each other.
Do Believe The Hype continues this theme. It’s a series where one writer introduces a beloved artist to another who has yet to be convinced by their legend.
This time it’s 10 tracks from Michael Head carefully selected by Pete Wild. Will Collins is the recipient, but will he be a happy customer or an unhappy victim?
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that, prior to this, I had never even heard of Michael Head, let alone listened to any of the numerous records he has been involved with as a band member and solo artist. However, this meant that I had the “kid at christmas” joy of tucking into a body of work about which I had absolutely no preconceptions. In my defence, I think it’s also fair to say that Head is a an artist who has flown a little under the radar, so that the hype he has enjoyed has never been particularly widespread.
Pete opted to narrow the focus of the playlist, so I was just looking at Head’s work in the band Shack and solo projects as Michael Head and the Strands and Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band. The playlist is as follows:
‘Queen Matilda’ by Michael Head and the Strands
‘Hocken’s Hey’ by Michael Head and the Strands
‘Comedy’ by Shack
‘I Want You’ by Shack
‘As Long As I’ve Got You’ by Shack
‘Cadiz’ by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
‘Newby Street’ by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
‘Adios Amigo’ by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
‘Kismet’ by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
‘Freedom’ by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
Each of the three projects captured in the playlist has a distinct identify, but all of them share similar DNA. There are musical flourishes and lyrical preoccupations that act as a kind of hallmark throughout, more on which later. To offer a very broad brushstroke sketch of the three, the Michael Head and the Strands songs are the mostly explicitly folky, the Shack songs are bigger and fuller, offering lush adult pop, and the Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band tunes plot a kind of middle furrow between the two, operating in the melodic but stripped down singer songwriter space.
Of the three different guises, I would have to say that it is the folkier Michael Head and the Strands songs that spoke to me the most. ‘Queen Matilda’ combines gentle finger picked guitar and breathy, almost whispered vocals to create a beautifully intimate atmosphere – something we will be seeing again. The instrumentation is thoughtful and restrained, touches of flute and a simple drumbeat padded out softly on one drum giving the song plenty of space to breath. This restraint gives the love song a devotional feel and heightens the impact of moments like the electrified, finger picked solo that kicks in partway through.
The title of ‘Hocken’s Hey’ makes it sound like a traditional folk song, and it certainly plays like one. Finger picked guitar and banjo call to mind Seth Lakeman and Fairport Convention, and the chorus’s refrain of “sometimes I think about the world” evokes a weary but satisfied troubadour reflecting on their journeying.
It is then quite a big gear shift from those folky numbers to the Shack songs in the playlist. Whilst the acoustic guitar is still ever-present, these songs are fuller and busier. For me, they are a bit more hit and miss. When they work, they are beautiful. But on occasion they can be a little more throwaway.
‘Comedy’ is one of the successful offerings. Seeing a relationship through the lens of film genres, it deploys keys and strings to great effect. The piano gently tinkles on the verses, before the strings erupt on the gorgeous choruses. It reminded me of The Divine Comedy. Head’s voice here sounds more lived-in and careworn here, almost cracking at points.
This sense of an emotional voice being pushed to its limits is also present on ‘As Long As I’ve Got You’, that limit presenting itself not in a voice that is shouting or screaming, but one that is wracked with emotion. It is one of many songs from the playlist that is addressed TO someone. Throughout Head crafts songs that feel like they have been written for an audience of one. It is one of those elements of shared DNA that appears throughout all of his different musical endeavours. Here, the listener feels almost voyeuristic, like they are intruding on a deeply personal moment.
For me, ‘I Want You’ is less successful. Beginning with trippy noises and vocal effects, it develops into a retro sounding Merseybeat number. Whilst not a bad song per se, it feels like it bears less of Head’s songwriting identity than the other songs and as a result has not stuck around so effectively in my mind after listening.
The rest of the playlist is composed of songs from the most recent Red Elastic Band project. These combine elements of the two previous projects. The songs are rich and melodic singer songwriter offerings. Again, I found them to be inconsistent. None of them bad, but some of them less successful than others.
‘Newby Street’ with its parping horns and ‘Adios Amigo’ had less insistent melodies than the other songs and felt like more generic exercises in.songwriting. Whilst perfectly listenable, they didn’t do enough to make me hit repeat.
When these songs work, however, they are beautiful. ‘Cadiz’ operates at a stately pace, making use of the spare instrumentation seen on Head’s Strands song – individual flourishes of brass and cello cycle in and out – to chart the vocalist’s emotional journey during the song. It is another one of the songs delivered to someone and has a smoky, intimate atmosphere throughout.
‘Kismet’ and ‘Freedom’ are both excellent too. Once again, Head’s voice is rich and weathered, reflecting on a life lived. In both cases it combines with interesting guitar lines, resulting in insistent and beautiful melodies. It is Head’s songwriting at its best.
Overall, I can see why Pete holds Michael Head’s work in such esteem. Whilst not lyrically cutting edge, his best songs are wonderfully evocative, doing a great job at distilling life experiences and emotions into 3 minute bursts of song, like insects preserved in amber. Reading up about him after listening, it seems as though he has had quite an eventful life and the songs lay testament to that. His voice is perhaps his biggest asset, always the most interesting instrument on his songs and capable of conveying those emotions with a deceptive ease. Although I didn’t love them all, the 10 songs from the playlist have shown me what a powerful songwriter he can be and I’m definitely keen to explore his work further, particularly his earliest efforts in Pale Fountains. Do I believe the hype? I’d say so. Thanks to Pete for introducing me to someone new (to me)!
Words by Will Collins