The Streets is/are 22-year-old former Birmingham resident Mike Skinner, and his/their debut album "Original Pirate Material" has been hailed in some quarters (and in quotes reproduced on the cover sticker) as the future of dance music. And this he/it may well be: working from a baseline of UK garage or whatever it's called this week, Skinner (re)claims it for the underdog (his hand-written sleeve note reads "thanks to all the girls who dumped me and all the geezers who beat me up or taxed me - you drove me to be so focused!") and adds on lashings of Specials-style social commentary and the same tower block paralysis as the first Clash album, talking over the top in his distinctive, repetitive, monotone almost-rap.
When it works, "Original Pirate Material" is warm, fuzzy brilliance, and it works so frequently that it might be best to dismiss the few occasions that it doesn't first. The skanking "Let's Push Things Forward" has the noblest of intents, attempting to raise the quality bar in popular music ("You say that everything sounds the same/Then you go buy them/There's no excuses my friend/Let's push things forward"), but its swinging, Specials riffage leaves me a little cold. The chaotic "Sharp Darts" that follows it seems too transient to really register.
But elsewhere Skinner takes the typical and expected youth preoccupations of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll (whatever that means these days) and spikes them with all manner of attention-sapping detritus of late 20th century consumer culture - mobile phones, Playstations, pirate radio stations, designer footwear, London Underground travel cards and junk food. The music behind his diamond-hard focussed outbursts is frequently stunning: the guy can squeeze "What's Going On" out of a sampler like toothpaste out of a tube. First single "Has It Come To This?" is the ideal three minute Streets primer, laced with lyrical nuggets such as "Tony's got a new motor/SR Nova/Driving like a joyrider/Speeding to the corner/Your mother warned ya/It's a sound system banger" that cut straight to the quick and drive the listener's mind to exactly the place Skinner wants to take it with cinematic precision. He makes a word worth a thousand pictures, and although on one level it validates all those Eminem comparisons it raises the question of whether his lyrics could possibly have the same devastating effect outside this island. "Geezer's Need Excitement" spikes the monotony of the peer group experience, a tale of 3AM kebab shop disorder punctuated by Bernard Herrmann-esque soundtrack stabs. "It's Too Late" is blessed with possibly the album's most striking soundscape, all sweeping synthetic strings and thundering timpani-rolling beats, and yet more examples of Skinner's verbal prowess - "We first met through a shared view/She loved me and I did too" - in a tale of a relationship imperilled by geezer attitude. "The Irony Of It All" hilariously pits beer monster Terry against student smoker Tim, who makes "home made bongs using my engineering degree") - although as a proponent of both elsewhere on the album the listener is never entirely sure which side, if not both, the artist is on. The euphoric "Weak Become Heroes" is another fabulous widescreen moment, reminiscences of the narrator's first E experience floating atop a glorious piano-driven hymn to some kind of universal understanding.
"Original Pirate Material" is a fine album. Somehow it sounds simultaneously sophisticated, rough, poignant and funny, but achieves all of this without any obvious statement of cleveration. It has to have been worked upon and pored over, yet Skinner manages to make it all flow out naturally. He's a talented man, and for once the sticker hype appears to be fully justified.
THE STREETS A Grand Dont Come For Free (Locked On/679)
Mike Skinners hotly anticipated successor to 2002s rough guide to geezerdom Original Pirate Radio is a concept album maybe, an extended narrative definitely Brit-hop finally gets its The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, whether it wants it or not. If that narrative is rather too reliant on the vagaries of mobile phone technology perhaps a) its just an accurate reflection of where the kids are at these days, and b) at least it offers the kind of familiar reference points that site the story firmly in your city or in your crazy town.
Opening with a blazing brass fanfare that sounds like cut-up Tchaikovsky, It Was Supposed To Be So Easy charts a day of diminishing success as the hapless Skinner attempts to negotiate a string of menial chores such as returning a DVD, withdrawing cash, phoning his mother and paying in savings. He raps in a kind of amiable coded patois, reeling off quotable couplets faster than the pen can capture them. On Could Be Well In hes experiencing the first tentative stirrings of seduction, shared with a self-deprecating modesty thats an exotic foreign language in this genre. Similarly Not Addicted warns of the compulsive dangers of sports betting rather than recreational pharmaceuticals.
During Blinded By The Lights a night out goes wrong at the hands of bad drugs and absent friends. Peppered with stroboscopic synth stabs, The Streets sparse, elastic music provides just enough structure for Skinner to drape his rhymes over, spindly, fragile constructions that nevertheless hang together perfectly. Wouldnt Have It Any Other Way inventively documents the newly loved-up Mikes rejection of hedonism and subsequent descent into atrophy, a blur of nights spent on his girlfriends sofa smoking in front of soap operas. Leo Ihenachos fleet-footed, Al Green-esque chorus vocals are the sparkling counterpoint to Skinners bluffer verbal stream.
First single Fit But You Know It offers bouncy, synthesized guitar pop that sounds like The Wonder Stuff in this context, but the tracks that follow describe the albums musical and emotional low point, Such A Twat and What Is He Thinking, lost in self-doubt and confusion as the reserves of hummable melody dry up. Dry Your Eyes (unsurprisingly, not a cover of the Neil Diamond song) offers some recompense, with a slinky, soulful string arrangement and lump-in-throat lyrics of romantic closure; when he says It werent supposed to be easy its a telling measure of how far Mike has taken the listener in the space of three sides. Even finer is the closing Empty Cans, an audacious two-part rewound tale of television repair that hangs heavy with the moral you get what you give, an astonishing conflation of rhythm, melody and words.
So, wow. A Grand Dont Come For Free is undoubtedly a finer work than the sporadically impressive Original Pirate Material, and not in that superficially great/eventually hollow fashion that has plagued sophomore efforts from, among others, Coldplay and Doves, the mistaken equation of bigger with better. Its a masterful example of how to mature without having to mature. Pulsing with ambition, this album doesnt grow, it positively blossoms.
THE STREETS / BROTHER Manchester Academy 3 March 2011
The hope bar is set high by Brother’s choice of intro music, Campag Velocet’s “Bon Chic Bon Genre” being a refreshingly leftfield selection. Those hopes are deflated somewhat when Brother arrive, as they seem to have been influenced solely and completely by post-“Champagne Supernova” Oasis. Consider the evidence: their name is a truncation of that of Oasis’ own record label, one of their songs contains the lyric “roll it over” and their music never, ever deviates from a guitar soupy mid-tempo chug. Being from Slough they have a puppyish politeness rather than a Mancunian surliness, though. As a lab experiment they’re astonishing, but maybe not so entertaining as a band.
And The Streets…well, it’s a surprise (and a blow against unfounded prejudice, perhaps) to see Mike Skinner fronting a ‘proper’ band, with guitarists, keyboard players and a drummer and everything, some of whom have been borrowed from Plan B and The Music. It’s a shame, then, that for the second time in a week the Academy’s acoustics conspire to suck out the melodic interest, leaving only the beats distinct. More significantly, given how much of The Streets’ entertainment value rests on Skinner’s verbal dexterity, his delivery is garbled to unintelligibility tonight, probably due to those same sonic gremlins rather than any shortcomings on his part. Not that the crowd don’t go madly bonkers for it all the same, and also for his lemming-like audience participation theatrics, which culminate with the entire audience crouching perilously close to the venue’s sticky floor. Kudos, though, for his decision to spend great swathes of the set perched atop what he describes as the tour’s shakiest speaker stack, to the benefit of the more vertically challenged concertgoers.
For those who feel the substance of The Streets’ legend is carried by his/their first two albums, he/they play “Let’s Push Things Forward”, “Turn The Page”, “Weak Become Heroes”, “Dry Your Eyes” (naturally), “Fit But You Know It” and “Don’t Mug Yourself”, although sadly there’s no sign of “Has It Come To This?”. Perhaps the evening’s greatest surprise is how warmly material from critically meh fourth album “Everything Is Borrowed” is received: admittedly the likes of its title track and “Never Went To Church” mark a kind of maturation in Skinner’s technique and worldview, but it’s heartening to see them appreciated so widely and wildly.
This being The Streets’ self-proclaimed retirement tour there’s much euphoria and emotion in the room, but if ever a gig felt like a party to which I wasn’t invited this is the one.