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The Streets
A Grand Don't Come For Free

It was generally regarded that the day-to-day depicted on The Streets' debut disc, Original Pirate Material, was drawn directly from Mike Skinner's life, that the yarns about birds and beers and e's were the living-life shit being lived by a self-confessed South London geezer making on-the-sly music on-the-side. At just 22 years of age, Skinner was the voice of a generation, his songs evoking urban concerns — mobile-phone credit, paying for a pint, chatting up girls — that had largely been left unspoken, such day-to-day mundanity being a whole world away from the fanfaronade and trainbridge-language and braggadocio and myth-making that usually concerns hip-hoppers.

In the two-plus years since, things've changed, though, for Skinner, with sizeable record sales, drunken world tours, increasing celebrity, and the rise of the even-more-down-to-dirty-earth grime/gutter-garage scene all being things that translated to raised questions rising about the "authenticity" of The Streets. Skinner's response, then, on his second Streets record, A Grand Don't Come for Free, is to switch to a more straight-up narrative mode, authoring songs that feed into/read as a sequential story, a story that's entirely comprehensible on the very first listen, a story whose observations are of day-to-day days from a life that the songsmith himself is prob'bly not still living. For authors, this is a standard transition, a first work being, so often, littered with lightly-fictionalized autobiography. In fact, in the written word of the written world, filling stories with details drawn from one's own life is often frowned upon, it seen as a somewhat sophomoric trait, something that needs to be assuaged b'fore the writer can get down to some proper writing. It doesn't work the same for songwriters, music a more "purely expressive" medium in which people value the personal above all else, favored forms being confession, catharsis, and outright autobiographical angst.

So, then, it'll be interesting to hear how punters respond to Skinner's transformation from drunken geezer to schematic storyteller. I doubt it'll dent Skinner's saintly status amongst fellow geezers, something which, even a whole hemisphere away, seems entirely apparent as you hear Original Pirate Material blaring out of St. Kilda backpacker hostels or soundtracking shirtless-exchange-student cricket pick-ups on Carlton median strips. There's some surefire fodder here to endear Skinner even more so to fan-ish lads as hero-of-the-people and ringtone-chart-topper, and not just in the lyrical mentions of achieving "absolutely nowt" and needing to "sort out my pills" and "smacking down glasses at George Best's best session rate." "Fit but You Know It" is a chief example, a jolly knees-up that dials up the same Chas & Dave spirit Blur rang up in their Parklife era (Blur also being someone who, way back when the extent of someone's Englishness was somehow important — this a collective delusion that leads a nation to believe the absolutely unlistenably awful Oasis were actually good — were subject to continuing questions about their working-class authenticity), such musical backing going with Skinner's lyrics about checking out a chick in public, then wishing he hadn't shown such interest b'cause the tarted-up girl obviously has an inflated sense of her own appearance. Such a song kinda sticks out like dog's-balls on the record, its guitar-draped japery and naughty jauntiness not really match'd by much else herein. Which is, actually, a common occurrence on A Grand Don't Come for Free, the album's linear narrative not match'd by songs that, sequentially, make sense, the transitions on the disc often seeming a little incongruous and abrupt. Like when it goes from the lovers'-barney belligerence of "Get Out of My House" — Skinner's response to Dizzee Rascal's scene-defining "I Luv U" — straight into "Fit but You Know It," or, when the story heats up, cutting from the dark synth-string stabs and percussive beats and mate-doing-some-lunch-cutting lyrical tales of "What Is He Thinking?" straight into the end-of-a-relationship lamentation "Dry Your Eyes," a stirring ballad that's bound to be the most acclaimed cut on the album.

Just as Rascy and Wiley and the Roll Deep like seem most stunning when they dare drop their emotional guard, when Skinner goes straight-up balladic — acoustic guitars, strings, singalong mournful chorus — just prior to his story's conclusion, he throws down the ace of his album, the detail-centric words — often about tiny shifts in body language, but often falling into "bare desperation" and outright pleading ("please, please, I'm begging you, please") — hauled out from a dark emotional hole whose sentiments, whether they're drawn from his experience or not, are so universal that they seem real. The other real sentimental number, "Could Well Be In," comes from the opposite end of the relationship arc, about the first flirtations and rambling conversations that signify something significant could be on the horizon. Whilst that song falls back on its chorus/hook a little too often, hearing Skinner earnestly navigate first-impressions and trying-to-make-an-impression — "I'm trying to think what else I could say/ Peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray/ Yeah actually, yeah, she did look pretty neat/ Her perfume smelled expensive and sweet/ I felt like my hair looked a bit cheap/ Wished I'd had it cut back last week" — amidst images of an afternoon-pub is reminiscent of the work of Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat, who, when not self-consciously cultivating that Bukowski-of-rock shtick, nailed such scenes in his gruff Scots brogue in songs like "New Birds." The big difference between the two is that, where Arab Strap, and Moffat, have long cultivated a sense of musical and tonal understatement with which to contrast the crassness of the lyrics, Skinner is unafraid of bombast, his guv'na-isms and the music that goes with exchanging long-lasting quality for easy immediacy.

Even the grand indulgence in artistic artifice on A Grand Don't Come For Free — its self-contained narrative — seems like it's forsaking a long shelf-life, the downside of the story's "mystery" being that, once you've heard the yarn once, it's a little like you've heard it all, and all it has to offer. The album seems to get tired well b'fore its time, which is something Skinner was rarely accused of the first go-round.

by Anthony Carew

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