Times Of Grace

Poetic, touching and sublime, it contains the best set of songs since [a]Oasis[/a]' [B]'Definitely Maybe'[/B]...

That Shack's legend has often outweighed the reality is understandable. Michael Head might have been blessed with a divine talent, but he was also given an all too earthly appetite for self-destruction. Five albums in the two decades since he first emerged with The Pale Fountains tells its own story, and although those records have been consistently unique and wondrous, they only represent the tip of what might have been. Nineteen ninety-nine is meant to change all that.

The latest reincarnation of Shack have a proper record deal (with Laurel/London) and a brilliant forthcoming album, 'HMS Fable'. Poetic, touching and sublime, it contains the best set of songs since Oasis' 'Definitely Maybe'. And that's the point. Even now, there's no reason why success should continue to elude Shack. Anyone who's ever bought a record by The Beatles, Love, Simon & Garfunkel, anything on Postcard, any Noelrock band, even Belle & Sebastian, will find something to dazzle them on the new album. It's just with Shack, nothing is ever quite that simple.

The night before this comeback gig, reports are that they played a desperately shambolic warm-up at London's Camden Monarch. Songs were started and left unfinished, Mick Head's voice was shot and perhaps more pertinently the chorus to 'X Hits The Spot' was changed to the apparently more apt, "Smack hits the spot/When you're not around". No wonder that before this gig, Shack's inner circle is looking decidedly fretful.

The moment the band walk onstage, though, it's clear there's going to be no repeat of that performance. Sure, Head is fidgeting nervously, swigging on a bottle of water and feverishly rubbing his brow, but he's together. He might occasionally forget an album title, but for the most part he's just pleased to be playing his music to a raucous, appreciative crowd.

Simply, Shack are magnificent tonight. Ably assisted by the effortless guitar playing of his brother John, Mick sings beautifully from the start. His voice might be reminiscent of Ian Brown's, but he employs it with a flexibility and emotive power far beyond anything the ex-Roses man has. It makes the songs from the new LP breathtaking, as they veer from the anthemic, brazen chorus of 'Pull Together' and 'Natalie's Party' to the lovesick ballads of 'Streets Of Kenny' and new single 'Comedy'. Like The Verve, Shack offer you something romantic and mercurial, and these songs are riven with that same belief in the redemptive power of music.

It helps, of course, that they've got a great back catalogue to draw from. They play 'Mr Appointment' and 'Neighbours' from '91's lost album, 'Waterpistol', which underlines just how timeless their songs are. Before they leave the stage for the first time, they even find time for a version of Love's 'A House Is Not A Motel' - a touching moment, as Love's Arthur Lee more than anyone has been the inspiration behind Shack's ongoing pursuit of the perfect heartfelt pop song.

When they come back on, they surprise everyone by playing two songs, 'Oscar' and 'On The Terrace', that no-one's heard before. It shouldn't really come as a surprise. NME is later told that Mick wrote five more songs on the train down from Liverpool. Such, though, is his genius. Shack's fragile temperament might mean that sustaining this magic will be a problem. But when you hear this incredible music, you just have to pray the good will out. Because the reality is better than even the legend suggests.
7 / 10

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