The subsidiary labels within the Cherry Red family aren’t shy of mining the mod, soul and freakbeat archives in the name of a great compilation. The now defunct RPM issued a string of box sets, beginning with 2011’s ‘Looking Back’ and culminating with 2016’s ‘Looking Stateside’ which became a pleasingly comprehensive journey through an alternative 60s, and Strawberry Records’ similarly structured ‘Halcyon Days’ and its timely delivered follow up ‘I Love To See You Strut’ – issued in 2020 and 2022, respectively – proved equally essential.
It’s approximately 9pm on a very cold December night. It’s freezing outside and also decidedly chilly inside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The audience are shuffling around with a casual indifference. We’ve all just been bored to tears by the night’s support act, The Clientele, who appear to have played the same bland dreampop/indie tune ten or eleven times. Judging by the lack of atmosphere on stage and the rambling tunes punctuated by the occasional monosyllabic “thanks…”, the performers seemed just as as bored by their own music. [In retrospect, while they were devastatingly dull, it was easy to see why they were chosen. They weren’t the worst support act ever – that honour will forever be owned by Patrik Fitzgerald – they were just very boring.]
Saint Etienne are about to take the stage, though, so surely things are about to get much better. The minutes pass and a selection of kitschy tunes – almost certainly curated by Saint Et’s own pop historian Bob Stanley – fills time. As it happens, this is all more entertaining than The Clientele. and worthy of an easily accessible Spotify playlist. Saint Etienne founders, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, along with various other musicians, eventually saunter on stage at a rather casual 9:25, followed by vocalist Sarah Cracknell.
In the summer of 2016, singer-songwriter Max Shrager released ‘Thoughts of You‘, a solo collection of lo-fi tracks written and recorded over a six year period. As if experiencing M.Ward and Tobin Sprout through an old AM radio, the songs weren’t always the easiest to get into or even the most melodic, but there was something about Shrager’s approach that had a curious appeal.
As one half of duo The Shacks, Shrager continues along a gentle and almost vertiginous path, but given the luxury of a proper recording budget, his musical preferences are warmer and more inviting. Not only that, but having Shannon Wise handle the band’s vocals is a step towards a sound that’s better still. Wise has a presence: it’s not the style of your average singer whom allows a forceful voice to take command of the material in hand, but rather the opposite. By using her tones in a hushed and minimalist fashion, she constantly draws in the listener, in a way that so often accentuates the quirkier aspects of the music.
Some things aren’t created in the spur of the moment. Some things take a long time to find their place in the world. Such is the case with the debut release by singer-songwriter Max Shrager. Although by the time of ‘Thoughts of You’ was released July 2016 he had formed The Shacks and appeared to have settled, the six tracks on his solo EP were not part of the more immediate lead up to that, having been written and recorded over an eight year period.