10
May 04

You’re listening to the…

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You’re listening to the…: The Streets’ new album is out today. Lots of people, me included, think it’s great. But what – or who – does it actually sound like? NYLPM presents its dinner-party guide to names to drop (or not) when you’re trying to describe A Grand Don’t Come For Free.

DIZZEE RASCAL: Every broadsheet review of AGDCFF has mentioned Dizzee, which is odd given that Mike Skinner sounds nothing like him. Dizzee’s production is further out than the Streets’ but he has more songs built round self rather than situation, and his lyrics don’t share Skinner’s love of observational detail. Also his flow is totally different!

WILEY: Another oft-dropped name, and a slightly closer call I think. Wiley’s MCing style is as unshowy as Skinner’s – what makes his record so charming is how reasonable he always sounds. But again the lyrical approach is completely different – Wiley’s focus is usually internal, his rhyming rooted in exact dissections of how he’s thinking and feeling. Skinner tends to explore emotion by dialogue or by descriptions of what characters are doing. In terms of technique too Wiley’s a master of the repeated end rhyme and Skinner never really uses it.

JOHN COOPER CLARKE: Some people put The Streets in a vague lineague of post-punk poetry with Clarke and Ian Dury the names that crop up most often. There’s a faint whiff of Streets in Clarke’s yarn-spinning style, and on tracks like “The Day My Pad Went Mad” he tackles everyday disaster in the way Skinner likes to. But Clarke is basically a stand-up, not a dramatist – he’s focussed on the one-liner, the clever rhyme, not on the whole.

BARRY ADAMSON: If Skinner’s delivery is hard to place, what about his music? The way Skinner uses a cinematic ‘vibe’ on his storytelling tracks reminds me a bit of Barry Adamson and his ‘imaginary cinema’ records, like Moss Side Story. Adamson’s arrangements tend to be a bit sleeker, but the big difference is in the approach to narrative. Adamson’s records are mostly instrumental, and all about mood – the plot of the imaginary film is more or less yours to figure out. A Grand also manipulates mood superbly but it’s all about creating empathy through narrative detail.

THE WHO/YES/PINK FLOYD/QUEENSRYCHE/ETC ETC: There really needs to be a better word than ‘concept’ to describe albums like AGDCFF. Generally the freedom of getting a whole 70 minutes to tell a story leads musicians to go mental with overcooked sci-fi allegories. Skinner’s ambitions are rather less brazen.

THE DIVINE COMEDY: No really! On first listen the record that AGDCFF reminded me of structurally is Promenade by the Divine Comedy, a story of an imagined day in the life of Neil Hannon, over the course of which he falls in love. I adored this record when I was 21 – the small scale of the concept seemed perfectly suitable for album-length and it seemed marvellously recognisable and romantic. Unfortunately I listened to it again last month and thought it was just AWFUL, crashingly unsubtle and with no sense of character or detail. A couple of very pretty tunes though!

BLUR: “Fit But You Know It” invited comparisons to “Parklife” thanks to its stoopid guitar beat. Skinner was apparently insulted, and rightly so: Damon Albarn’s sneering conception of ‘character songs’ is a million miles away from The Streets’ loving slices of life.

THE WEDDING PRESENT: David Gedge’s favourite technique – presenting half a conversation, as naturalistically as metre allows – lives on on A Grand. “Get Out Of My House” produces the same shameful, nagging recognition that “What Have I Said Now?” used to. Obviously the two outfits sound nothing like each other, but there’s a more subtle difference too. The Wedding Present – like a lot of indie bands – focus obsessively on love (and usually its failure), creating an aesthetics of rejection and self-pity which can be hugely seductive but is basically pretty limiting. Skinner unpicks romantic grief with equal delicacy but his records always fill in the wider context – mates, raving, nights out and in, bad phone reception, late DVD returns, etc etc. – that grounds the loving and losing. By showing what heartbreak wipes away he makes sure it never seems heroic.

MADNESS: I’ve left them till last because I think that they come closest in feel to The Streets. Early Madness, this is, not the ‘polished songwriting’ of “Our House” and after (still excellent, but in a different way). Madness came out of a multi-racial scene and built their sound on its beats, then won big crossover success with a series of songs rooted in everyday life, rich in detail and often told using monologue. Their comedy was more broad than Mike Skinner’s, their situations often more obviously dramatic and they never attempted anything on the scale of A Grand Don’t Come For Free, but tracks like “Embarrassment”, “My Girl” and “House Of Fun” seem to me to come from the exact same place as The Streets.

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