Michael Head’s reputation as Britain’s greatest living songwriter rests on that stunning five-album run from 1995’s Waterpistol, through 1997’s The Magical World of the Strands, 1999’s chart-troubling HMS Fable, 2003’s career peak Here’s Tom With the Weather, and 2006’s …The Corner of Miles & Gil; psychedelia, 60s pop, Northern indie, jazz and folk all filtered through the Head Brothers’ undeniable charm and stunning ear for a melody.
Eleven years on, Shack are on an unexplained and seemingly indefinite hiatus and brother John is nowhere to be seen; instead Mick is backed by Scouse supergroup The Red Elastic Band (featuring the likes of former Cast guitarist Pete Wilkinson and trumpeter Andy Diagram), and it is of course wonderful to have him back – rather like an old friend you’d lost touch with, who suddenly shows up after a few years, looking a bit older, sounding a bit rougher, and showing plenty of wear & tear, but with whom you reestablish that old bond within minutes as their warmth & generosity quickly reemerges.
And yet, there’s something missing here – whether it’s the absence of John Head’s knack for channelling Bacharach & David, Mick’s rough & ready vocals (a Scouse Serge Gainsbourg), or the, ahem, decidedly lo-fi nature of the recording (the drums sound like someone hitting an egg box with a pencil in the next room), Adios Senor Pussycat is very much a game of two halves and takes considerable time to hit the spot.
Unusually in an age when albums tend to be front-loaded, Adios… saves its goodies for side two, and side one rarely hits the kind of peaks we expect from Mr Head. Too many unremarkable shuffling shanties such as ‘Picasso’ or ‘4&4 Still Makes 8’ and a couple of Head-by-numbers ballads in ‘Overjoyed’ and ‘Picklock’, with only the beautiful piano of ‘Winter Turns to Spring’ and the classic Shack sound of ‘Working Family’ suggesting that Mick’s powers are still intact.
It’s only with the arrival of recent single ‘Josephine’, with its euphoric, string-drenched chorus, that Adios…takes off and becomes a worthy, if not exactly essential, addition to the Head canon. The dreamy ‘Lavender Way’ harks back to Head’s work as The Strands and is arguably the finest thing here. The ba-ba-bas and guitar hooks of ‘Rumer’ could be straight off Waterpistol. The cover of Scottish folk standard ‘Wild Mountain Thyme‘ (previously referenced on Shack’s 2003 single ‘Byrds Turn to Stone’) is pure jangle-pop heaven. And the closing ‘Adios Amigo’ shows that Head’s pop nous is still very much alive & well, from its joyous chorus to its cheeky self-deprecating lyrics (“I’ve still got no time for money, and money’s got no time for me…”).
Victory just about snatched from the jaws of, no not defeat, but certainly a disappointing draw, and it’s a shame that, after such a long gestation, Adios Senor Pussycat sounds like it was recorded in a bit of a rush. Head’s songwriting genius still shines; I just wish it had been given a bit more of a polish this time round – it’s a pleasant listen, rather than a Head classic, and not a record that is likely to reach much further beyond his fervent cult following.