A Grand Don't Come for Free
Most American hip-hop is life writ large. Mike Skinner (aka The Streets), from London by way of Birmingham, shows how the genre can be applied to an average Joe. A Grand Don't Come For Free is a thoroughly unique permutation of hip-hop that allows a revealing glimpse into British culture and the daily travails of a lad who loses a wad of cash, falls in love and then gets his heart stomped on, bets on a soccer match, leaves the DVD out of the case when he returns it to the shop, scraps with a TV repairman, falls out with his mates, drops too much E at a club, and other stuff that's not the least bit sensational or self-aggrandizing.
Like his everyman themes, Skinner's rap style is considerably removed from the highly rhythmic swagger of his American counterparts. It's more conversational, offhanded and choppy. It's also delivered in a thick accent that I would call Cockney (except that he grew up in Birmingham). "Thing" is "fing," "head" is "ed," and the like.
On the opening "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy," the narrator, named Mike, leaves his flat to accomplish a few chores, but the day quickly goes to shit. When he tries to call his mother to say he can't make tea, it goes like this: "Where's my phone, have I got it?/ Aw, this is a crock of shit/ I lost the fucking fing/ Oh, here it is, in my pocket/ But the battery's nearly flat/ Gotta call quick, snap/ Aw shit, the battery is flat."
The most brilliant aspect of A Grand Don't Come for Free is its compelling story arc. Along the way, we overhear phone conversations, intimate (but not sexual) encounters between Mike and his girlfriend Simone, and inner monologues that range from poignant to hilarious. Skinner careens through a range of emotions and in the end finds something like, if not redemption, at least a decent reconciliation with his life. The overall effect, for me at least, is uplifting.
The rhythm tracks, mostly crafted by Skinner in a home studio, are not built around standard funk, but run a range of feels, from herky-jerky to springy to ballad-esque. The hooks take some getting used to. Many of them have a crude, nursery-rhyme feel that's accentuated by Skinner's barely tuneful singing. Somehow, these ditties insinuate themselves, though, and what comes off at first as sophomoric achieves a certain charm.
At first I saw A Grand Don't Come for Free as an amusing novelty. How many times, I thought, would I want to hear this story? But repeated listens revealed further detail and nuance, and damn if most of the songs themselves didn't emerge as little gems.
The Things We Do
What if Marianne Faithful had the vocal chops of Dusty Springfield, and could channel a little Billie Holiday for good measure? You'd come up with something close to Angela McCluskey, a Glasgow-bred, New York-based artist who has released an ear-opening soul-rock debut that, unfortunately, is too uneven to be considered great. The Things We Do does showcase a unique and promising vocal talent, though, and that's cause for celebration in itself. Now in her late 30s, McCluskey, and her voice, is best known for her role in the French group Telepopmusik's "Breathe," which appeared on a Mitsubishi commercial. Her singing is imbued with a sound that falls between a rasp and a croak, but it never comes off as ravaged or weak. The disc includes at least one gem, the opener "It's Been Done," a swaying R&B tune loaded with soul and charm. In all, though, producer/co-writer Nathan Larson (Shudder to Think) tends to choke the songs with a little too much sound. He likes to go for big, thick crescendos when, to these ears, McCluskey's pipes need to soar down a less-crowded sonic avenue.
Love and Distance
THE HELIO SEQUENCE
After a few spins of Sub Pop's latest attempt at world domination, a certain incongruously artificial zeitgeist seems to exude from The Helio Sequence's Love and Distance. Sometimes, on tunes such as "Harmonica Song" and "Repeater" — on which the album's bubbling synthesizers and loosely regimented drum rolls continuously levitate and plummet like a fanciful Ferris wheel — this feeling actually talks. It says "this shit would've been huge in England." Somewhere between Helio's first two full-lengths and this outing, the duo's affinity for ambient electronic cuts got confused with their apparent unbridled desire to sound exactly like The Stone Roses. Yikes. However, the melding of the "Madchester" sound with Mac-beats makes for an oddly likeable relationship. And, save for some vacuous lyrics and a few puzzling harmonica solos, the record is eerily affable. Drummer Benjamin Weikel (who also keeps beat for indie darlings Modest Mouse) is downright ridiculous on the skins, which serves as the centerpiece for a buffet crammed with Britpop brogue and riffage to match. And don't forget those giggling glitches and bouncing bleeps that serve as a blueprint for this electronic-vs.-Anglo-pop experiment, perfectly formulated on the picturesquely passionate "Let it Fall Apart." Sub Pop has been going in a new direction for a while now, but who thought the former governors of grunge would've ended up sounding like they moved in with the Queen?
Systems Officer is the first solo release from Armistead Burwell Smith IV; fringe-rock pundits may know him better as Zach, the bassist/singer/composer from late major-label mavericks Three Mile Pilot and current indie icons Pinback. That's a pretty daunting resume, but this five-song EP does far better than merely hold its own. While fans of Pinback's high vocals, evocative atmospheres and meandering, complementary instrumental lines will find plenty here to like, Systems Officer trades in simpler, sturdier fare, with no less compelling impact. Offbeat, vaguely reggae-inflected tunes like the title track and "Desert/Sea" evoke a palpable urgency, and the other three tracks build a Pinback-esque latticework around (comparatively) short structures and grabby melodies and instrumental lines. Overall, this gorgeous 20-minute listen could be seen as more commercial than Smith's work in other bands. It's probably more accurate, though, to read Systems Officer as an effort at paring back a bit, at going straight for the good stuff and leaving the excess behind. In any case, it's an inimitable and enthralling piece of almost-pop. (www.acefu.com)