March 23, 2011

Renato Pagnani gets computers puting.

At the end of 2009, The Guardian, one of England’s biggest newspapers, published their list of the decade’s best albums. Among those included on the (naturally) UK-heavy list were Radiohead’s dystopic masterpiece Kid A, Burial’s ghostly Untrue, and Funeral from recent Grammy darlings, Arcade Fire.  What topped the list? In what level-headed people would call an upset and less level-headed people would label (take your pick) a “travesty,” “sham,” or “pretty big fucking upset,” the winner was Original Pirate Material, the 2002 debut from Mike Skinner, also known as the Streets.

That an independent album from a kinda/sorta rapper stuffed with homemade garage beats and tales of drug-fueled nights and blurry 4 a.m. trips to McDonald’s would outrank Thom Yorke and co. (who did place second) speaks volumes about the impact that Original Pirate Material had on British music in the 00s. Let’s face it — as good as Original Pirate Material is (i.e. very), there’s no way it would ever have topped an American list of the best albums of 2000-2009, even if it was potentially and arguably was good enough to. (Original Pirate Material ranked #36 on Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 2000s list. Three Radiohead albums ranked above it.)Of all the things Skinner did well — the tiny details in his Nas-like storytelling, his knack for mythologizing the mundane, making tracks that made you move out of discount parts — perhaps most important was that he proved that UK rappers weren’t beholden to impersonating those on the other side of the Atlantic. Original Pirate Material took pride in its Britishness in a way that gave it its own unique sound, one that even today has yet to be duplicated.

Skinner’s next album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, extended his narrative gifts into the realm of fiction. The beats were starker, hit harder, and possessed the same DIY charm of his debut. These were tracks made in someone’s bedroom, their edges still rough, loose threads poking out here and there. This same modest ambition characterized the album as a whole: A Grand Don’t Come for Free was a concept album, but one that didn’t draw attention to itself. Conversely, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, did nothing but jump up and down, waving its arms in hopes of someone taking notice.

When it came time for his fourth album, Skinner attempted to record a corrective to his hedonistic and mean-spirited now-I’m-famous album. But the problem was Everything Is Borrowed swung too far in the other direction, to the point where Skinner erased himself from the picture entirely, becoming a cipher for dollar-store profundities and the kind of motivational pap reserved for posters on the ceilings of dentists’ offices. The difference was that while on his debut it felt like you could approach Skinner and have a good chat with him over a beer and a spliff, on The Hardest Way you could try to have that same conversation until Skinner’s bodyguards pushed you away. There was simply no Mike to converse with.

It makes sense then, that the next — and last — Streets album would aim to strike a happy medium between the well-intentioned but cornball sermonizing and the rave geezer persona that endeared Skinner to so many in the first place. Computers and Blues attempts this synthesis of Skinner’s two halves, but the philosophizing always feels like a corrective, as if Skinner feels guilty about going back to making songs about getting stoned and going to raves. And the paradox here is that those songs about getting stoned and going to raves have always been more insightful and authentic than Skinner’s attempt at serious thinking — Skinner thinks through action, he doesn’t act through thinking. It’s a mixed bag, mostly because Skinner still does too much, well, thinking. Take for instance, this cringe-inducing bit from “Puzzled by People”: “I’m pretty good at puzzles, but puzzled by people/ I don’t trouble trouble and trouble don’t trouble me.” The banalities continue to pile up in the chorus: “Sometimes you have to find out for yourself/ Sometimes you have to be told/ Sometimes you never find the answer.”

But the song’s biggest groaner has to be Skinner’s realization that “you can’t Google the solution to people’s feelings.” Thankfully, these sorts of penny insights are contained mostly to the corners of tracks, like on “Trying to Kill M.E.,” when Skinner raps, “The only good thing, and I should cling to it good/ Is sparks of good art that harken the darkness.” The line isn’t as awful as some of the New Age gobbledegook on Everything Is Borrowed, but it’s just too on-the-nose for a writer of Skinner’s talent, and it scuffs up an otherwise interesting song about Skinner’s battle with the neurological illness Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.

But it’s the welcome return — in spots, at least — of the old Skinnerian wit and observational storytelling that makes Computers and Blues somewhat of a fitting send-off for the Streets. On “Inside Outside,” Skinner raps: “Weed makes me not wanna be new places, fight it/ Stare at the same TV watching the torrent, like it,” recalling “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” from A Grand Don’t Come for Free, only this time Skinner’s lighting up with his mates and not just his girlfriend. Then there’s Skinner’s musings on chav violence on “Going Through Hell”: “If you can’t join them, beat them/ If you won’t roid up, be friends/ The joy of the fight is the fight in the boy/ I’m making this up now, finding a point/ Is it if you can’t win, then run?/ The coming two fists is the fun of the thing/ It’s all just lads, and the normal ambience/ Fall or stub, call an ambulance.” It’s little details in his songs — “bags packed by the door” with “rags in a black backpack, dashed-in passport,” or skylines “sliced up into pieces of steel and mesh” — that gives the music something to tangible to grab onto.

Skinner can still occasionally conjure up magic, although it sounds like it takes more energy than it used to. It occurs when he’s less self-consciously cerebral, as on the jubilant “Without Thinking,” which gets the blood flowing with insistent house pianos and a rousing chorus where Skinner threatens to “go downtown without thinking and shout over a drink.”  “Soldiers” is a future festival closer with a stadium-ready chorus and a throbbing , bittersweet pulse, even if the contents of its verses are pretty hollow. “Trust Me” incorporates a dubstep stutter into its two-step shuffle, and Skinner unleashes what might be the most ferocious flow of his career — those who complained about his technical imprecision on Original Pirate Material might not believe they’re listening to the same person. “Those That Don’t Know” is an expression of one of Skinner’s most underrated attributes as a beatmaker: his funkiness. Built on a shifting track of canned disco strings and sampled female vocals that could’ve been pulled from some classic garage track, it evokes the rush of a good night out with friends and illicit substances, where things are “hunky-dory all evening, at 140 BPM/ ‘Till it’s done sort of in the AM, or you’re done talking/ Or it’s mayhem.”

“Those That Don’t Know” is the best thing here, one of the recent instances where Skinner is up to the task of matching his production — something that was the opposite during his first two albums. (While the beats on OPM and AGDCFF were usually captivating on their own terms, it was Skinner who took them to that next level.) Computers and Blues features Skinner’s most varied and accomplished work behind the boards, the same thing that was said about Everything Is Borrowed and The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living before it.

Like its predecessors, it’s really not the production that ruins any of these songs, but overcooked subject matter—only someone with little left to write about would spend four minutes prattling on about looking at a girl’s relationship’s status on Facebook, as actually occurs on the awful “OMG” — or failed retreads, like “We Never Can Be Friends,” which is meant to be a 2011 version of “Dry Your Eyes.” Skinner’s sincerity has always been one of his charms, but not when it comes replete with a Ryan Tedder-wannabe soccer mom chorus and mushy strings — it’s the worst kind of Streets song, one where the sentimentality suffocates the sentiment. Basically, what sinks more than half of Computers and Blues is what sunk Skinner’s last one-and-a-half albums: his songwriting has gone down the john.

Now that he’s left his twenties and is even further removed from his nights doing drugs at raves, which he was already reminiscing about a decade ago, Skinner finds himself at a strange crossroads. His girlfriend recently gave birth to their daughter, the anticipation of which is chronicled on the surprisingly affecting “Blip on a Screen.” He tried to start a record label — the failed imprint The Beats — and none of the acts he’s championed over the years have developed into much of anything.

Ending the Streets now is a wise move when looked from this perspective. It’s probable that—and I think Skinner is well aware of this himself—he’d come off like one of those old ravers trying to hold on to a bygone era, trying to hang with the cool kids but instead coming off as pathetic. Computers and Blues is one for old time’s sake, released before it becomes akin to exhuming and mutilating the corpse. He’s not pushing things forward anymore—but hey, he’s pushed them far enough already.

Download:
MP3: Streets-“Those That Don’t Know”
MP3: Streets-“Tell Me”