The Streets - The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living
George Bass 10/04/2006
Mike Skinner: two words that divvy up the music community like a Marmite finger buffet at Checkpoint Charlie. To some, he's the bloke who puts the art in warts 'n all; to others, he puts the s in hit. Four years, one Reebok endorsement and a breakthrough album after his debut release and his fans are holding their breath - has life on the A-list paved the Streets with bling? On the surface, you might think so. The sleeve artwork for Original Pirate Material was a photoshopped towerblock, a nod to the roots of his muse. Judging his latest book by its cover (wide-angle landscape of Skinner, slouched impatiently against a custom Rolls and decked out in the jacket-and-jeans Hoxton chic of a Top Gear presenter) would strike fear into the more devout corners of his fanbase, but as the man himself quipped many moons ago: 'this is called irony'. His latest effort isn't exactly an ego-has-landed strut through two years of tabloid hi-jinx, nor is it a crudely xeroxed rehash of his platinum LP. No - this is hardcore. Sort of.
Prangin' Out lifts the lid on the record's rationale - a beat-heavy tale of waking up next to a sleeping girl and a discarded laptop, doused in paranoia and seeking solace in brandy and snow (incidentally, this is the first of many appearances of the P word over the next thirty-seven minutes; for a man so frequently pranged, Skinner hasn't half done a good job of t-cutting his bodywork). As he subverts a line-up of rockstar clichés - getting a wallop off his manager, worrying if his latest conquest will tell now she's kissed, realising he's left the iron on while he's been on tour - the music chugs along nicely, cementing his customised banter with staggered keyboards and a harmonic chorus that teems with Roy Budd electric organ. Second helping The War Of The Sexes is Skinner's boisterous take on The Game by Neil Strauss, and comes across as bright whirlwind of funfare klaxons and some grinding power chords, while lyrically outlining the battle plan a bloke needs to employ in order to get lucky these days. Once the pips sound on that lesson, it's on to some business studies with the title track - a skim through The Streets' profit and loss account, presumably an explanation for the record's April release date. Apparently Mike's got 'three years to make this work/Or look a joke and be broke', but he keeps his spirits up while breaking down a quarter of a million pound budget over some plodding harpsichord bigbeat.
Overall there's a good deal more melody on the LP than his previous full-lengths, but none of it runs the risk of drowning out the trademark Streets lairiness. The two elements play off each other nicely, especially on the heartfelt All Goes Out The Window, which showcases Skinner's knack for anchoring deep sincerity to some irresistible hooks. Looped piano, backing vocals by Leo The Lion and tight wordplay from Mr. S come together to guide the listener along a tightrope of fidelity. On the other hand, the spikier Memento Mori is just as polished, but could easily be tagged as the flagship track of the record; over a chunky swagger, Skinner explains how binges of material excess offer a breather from dead-end soul searching. It might not be the most obvious route to audience empathy, but his honesty rescues it from any potential obnoxiousness.
As with much of his material, it's the hangdog sense of humour that first gets your attention. Can't Con An Honest John is a self-help story that incorporates moral standards, running a record label and barroom scams with non-pedigree dogs, set to some white noise garage and monster bass. Skinner's tongue stays firmly in his cheek for infectiously chirpy lead single When You Wasn't Famous - the 3am-baiting account of his secret bunk-up with an anonymous popstar. Whodunnit? More of a who'dhedo. It's only when the honesty starts to curdle into cheese that the album ever really stumbles. Never Went To Church - Skinner's tribute to his late father - is sadly a bit of a misfire, coming across as part Tank Park Salute, part Let it Be and part Will Smith's cack-handed cover of Just The Two Of Us.
Radio-friendly second single out the way, things quickly get back up to speed. Hotel Expressionism is a cheeky swipe at mindless 'prang vandals' and their predictable room-trashing clownery. It's bookended by guest vocals from a plums-in-the-mouth Hooray Henry, and set to a relentless threshing machine synth line. 'I make these crap rhymes/To pay the hotel bills that fund my passion', shouts Mikey at one point. These things are best out in the open. He tones the giggles down a notch for Two Nations, which might just be the long-awaited Streets' bid for the US market. 'Understated is how we prefer to be/That's why I've sold three million and you've never heard of me', all delivered with a wry wink to Vice, his American distributors. The lyrics scale over the language barriers (fags versus faggots, crystal meth against rocks etc) and weigh up the pros and cons of life either side of the pond. Skinner's observations are witty enough - arguably at their most biting on the album - but the cyclic guitar-driven melody isn't quite strong enough to corroborate them. Luckily closing track Fake Streets Hats revs up the jollies, and sees Skinner putting his hands up after throwing a wobbler on stage. He thought the crowd were wearing counterfeit Streets headgear and proceeded to tear into them; turns out - shock horror! - they weren't. Luckily the mics picked up his tantrum and it's sampled into some Black Eyed Peas-style funk for the amusement of all to hear. We also get to earwig at his gobsmacked crew, muttering on in disbelief as they realise he's been putting on moisturiser in between tracks. A well-intentioned finale for the LP, but not in the same league as Stay Positive or the redemptive Empty Cans.
For an act that thrives on a commitment to out-and-out honesty, The Streets have produced a capable album in light of their ascent from the underground. Skinner's observations are generally as lucid as ever; if anything, his promotion to pop contender has sharpened his formidable gift of the gab. But some moments of musical flippancy mean that it's not as likely as Original Pirate Material to get ringroad rudeboys splitting their Jimmy Hills with the indie brigade, and the overall subject matter isn't as outwardly marketable as A Grand Don't Come For Free. As a standalone effort it's consistent nonetheless, and one that fairly accurately charts the hero's actions after he won the fight and the credits have rolled. Instead of having his dirt dished by others, Mike Skinner chooses to expose himself. What - you didn't think he'd have his Sunday best on under that mac did you?