Michael Head, former frontman of the Pale Fountains and current co-leader along with his brother John -- who is also a Strand -- of Brit pop outfit Shack, turns in a stellar chamber pop performance with Magical World of the Strands. Head, who is no stranger to either classy, baroque pop or neo-psychedelia, has composed an album of gorgeously illustrated songs that are lushly orchestrated by a standard rock quartet augmented by a flutist (Leslie Roberts) and a string quartet. The result is an album that, while little known, is a classic, a masterpiece of modern chamber pop. Released in 1997, this disc walks the line between the deep, darkly expressionistic chamber work of the Tindersticks and the airy, classically augmented breeze-laden pop of Nick Drake à la Five Leaves Left -- long before the millennial obsession with the latter's work was revived due to a Volkswagen commercial. The disc's first two tracks, "Queen Matilda" and "Something Like You," are striking in their seductive, velvety tenderness. The ghost of Drake is everywhere, floating in and hovering above the strings. In the refrain to "Something Like You," one can even hear his voice in Head's phrasing. The difference, however, is in how Head composes lyrics: he's more economical; he merely illustrates the essence of what he's communicating--be it image or emotion--and leaves the listener to fill in the blanks. The other huge influence on Head and the Strands is Pentangle, with slippery modal folk and rock. This music could have been recorded in the early '70s, but what it conveys is timeless. What reverberates through this album on every track is musical savvy. It's in the lyrical reverie of "X Hits the Spot," with jangling guitars and subtle backbeat. "It's Harvest Time," recalls Dave Cousins and Strawbs with open, ringing 12 strings, and piping, echoplexed flute. The electric-acoustic guitar tradeoff between Michael and James in "Fontilan," contains a melancholic theme inside a spacious mix colored by swelling strings. Throughout this gem showcases compositional class and an aesthetic sensibility at once artful yet completely accessible to anyone with an interest in well-written, -played, -produced, and -sung pop.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek