Wednesday, 9 November 2011

R.I.P The Streets 2002-2011

 For the best part of a decade Mike Skinner a.k.a. The Streets has shown himself to be one of the most talented and important artists that has come out of the UK.

Arriving on the scene in 2002 with his first full length LP Original Pirate Material, Skinner gave a voice to the youth not just of London (to which he is so often attached), but to Britain's youth. Rapping about the 'same old thing' which these young, politically disenfranchised Brits encountered everyday, Skinner's poignant, but often comic lyrics, infused with garage and techno influences, was taken into the hearts of the people he was writing about, but also those of the critics. Skinner's followup, the emotional concept album A Grand Don't Come For Free, which tells the story of a doomed relationship, continued to show Skinner's artful storytelling and lyrical intricacy. It is hard to think of any two albums which so simply, but so powerfully portrayed the lives of a generation.

While the songs retained a similiar sound to those of the first two albums, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living saw a distinct change in subject matter for Skinner. After making his name with stories of the twentysomething everyman struggling to make a living in Britain at the turn of the millenium, The Streets' third LP shows Skinner coping with the fame that has come his way and dealing with the pleasures and pains that accompany it (very Thom Yorke). While the album still retains some of Skinner's ascerbic wit and melancholia as he pokes fun at the lifesyle he is immersed in, you can't help but feel that he has gotten a little too close to the consumerist society (even for his liking) as he bemoans people wearing 'fake streets hats'. Therefore while the music does not suffer, and the lyrics are still as provocative and asorbing as ever, the rawness and spirit that occupied his first two albums had undoubtedly made a departure.

There are some fans, and indeed critics, who say that he should have left it at three albums, and these claims are understandable. By Everything Is Borrowed and the final album Computers & Blues, the sound of The Streets was unrecognisable from that which emerged in 2002. The heavy dub-influenced basslines and garage beats had been replaced with piano melodies and strumming guitars, and Skinner had obviously moved his priority from penetrating and provocative lyrics to more accomplished production and a better sound. This is by no means a criticism. Both albums are highly listenable and Skinner definetly achieved his goal of producing better albums. Amongst the beats there are also some lyrical gems and songs which definetly fall under the "classic" category. Therefore any artist who undertakes such a big evolution in style over their career must be respected, especially one who thinks as much as Skinner obviously does. It cannot be argued though that by the end of his time as The Streets, the raw emotion and power of his debut had been replaced by excellent production and generally vague lyrics.

The Streets began with a D.I.Y. attitude of rapping about your life and experiences and producing these ideas yourself. This is the legacy of Mike Skinner. This attitude, combined with his potent, yet light-hearted lyrics showed a generation that they can have their voice heard no matter what their situation. Although he could not sustain this effect over all five of his albums, all remain highly enjoyable and trace his evolution from a genius lyricist to a talented producer. Mike Skinner a.k.a The Streets paved the way for the current profileration of self-produced grime artists and his influence on the British music industry as well as the British youth since 2000 remains unparalleled.

My Top 5 Essential Streets Tracks:
- Weak Become Heroes
- Blinded By The Lights
- Dry Your Eyes
- The Escapist
- Lock The Locks

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Progressive Neo- what?

On an early morning of last week I was up before any of my fellow housemates in order to attend a ‘Coffee House Debate’ organised by The Guardian as one of the fringe events of the Labour Conference in Liverpool. The debate was to centre around what the Labour Party or indeed any potential Government can do to better the conditions of the British Youth today. As a student and having never seen or heard any political figure in person, aside from a Mr. Blair paying a visit to my hometown of Croydon when I was the tender age of six, I was looking forward to hearing the views and ideas of the panel. It included Lisa Nandy MP, who had worked as the Children’s Commissioner for England before becoming MP for Wigan and who had recently been named one of the New Statesman’s twenty ‘rising stars’ of British Politics under forty, as well as Westminster veteran and previous Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley Green. Both spoke well, chastising governments past and present for not doing enough for the British Youth whilst willing future governments to do more as well as highlighting to their audience the duty they had.

It was thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the morning and at the end of it two things were unmistakeably clear to me; the first was that, while the Youth of Britain today might have an energetic curiosity for the politics of their country, the vast majority of them are unable to express this interest due to failures in education, funding of local communities, and the social construct that they are brought up in. The second point was that this problem has become intrinsic in our society and is unlikely to go away in the near future.

Standing in the upstairs floor of the Starbucks I counted two other people who looked my age or younger, one of whom was the extremely impressive pannelist, Richard Cullen, the UK Youth Voice representative. One man when asking a question to the panel referred to the room, pointing to the glass wall that looks out onto the main shopping street in Liverpool, as a ‘bubble’, asking why members of government and the Children’s Society weren’t outside doing something about the poor state of the Youth today.  However incorporated into this ‘bubble’ was not just the few who were in that room but the entire institution of British Politics.

Despite many of the youth today taking a keen interest in the workings of their country, very few are able to ‘work’ their country. Even if you do join a Party and do get involved in your local constituency, it is hard enough to have an effect there, let alone working your way up to the House of Commons and having national influence.

Lisa Nandy, who grew up in Lancashire before attending Newcastle University, struck upon one of the most damaging facts in British Politics, when describing her life as an MP living in London. She portrayed Westminster as an intellectually exclusive club where men and women debated the pros and cons of the ‘progressive neoliberal consensus’, and other such labyrinthine terms, completely absorbed in this esoteric bubble and forgetting the concerns of their constituents at home. 

This represents what politics has become in Britain. Over the course of the 20th century a seat in parliament has just become another stop on the stately coach of the upper middle class who have already got off at Eton and Oxbridge. This may seem cynical, however consider those ‘rising stars’ of British Politics such as Lisa Nandy and Chuka Umanna. Even though they have made into parliament can they uphold the values which impressed the members of their constituency which got them elected in the first place? Or will they succumb to the jargonistic talk of those weaned on old Oxbridge conservatism, and become ineffectual, simply happy to be part of the country’s supposed intelligentsia.

With this kind of political framework what chance then, does this give the Youth of local communities who want to make a difference? Some, such as Richard Cullen, will get their voice heard, however, for the majority of the British Youth, that interest they had in wanting to change their country will fade, if it is was ever there in the first place and the Oxbridge elite will continue to run the show in their Westminster bubble.

The question was asked at the beginning of the morning; can Labour deliver for the next generation? The disparity between the attitudes and ideas of UK Youth compared with those in Westminster is so far removed that it is, and always has been, impossible to get a fully representative government. Therefore the answer is ‘No’, Labour, nor any other government, will be able to deliver what the UK Youth wants, and this will not change until that Westminster bubble is burst and it is the Youth of Britain who are given the insight and tools to make a difference.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Lifes Rich Pageant - R.E.M.

Lifes Rich Pageant is R.E.M.’s fourth album in four years, and with such a prolific output of work it is no surprise that some songs begin to sound similar however this is no bad thing, for three reasons. Firstly, because R.E.M.’s music is good, secondly because their lyrics are always provocative in different ways, but lastly because it seems that what the band are giving us on this album is a snippet of what their life is like now as they gradually make the change from college rockers to a respected and successful alternative rock band.

The song that is most important in continuing this progression is the lead single ‘Fall On Me’. With its intricate guitar opening it provides a pensive mood for a song about oppression of ideas, but also a sing-a-long chorus which new listeners could enjoy. The album also has a much more upbeat feel than previous provided by the rowdy Just A Touch and the chirpy, piano-led Hyena. Despite this, references to previous albums remain; the riff to These Days is clearly in the jangle pop style which dominated the first two albums, while the completely acoustic slow ballad Swan Swan H would not be out of place on the band’s previous album with its bucolic imagery of the American South.

However this ‘day in the life’ of R.E.M. which the album provides is not solely concerned with past experiences and feelings. With one listen it is obvious Stipe’s mumbled delivery from previous albums has completely disappeared, and for good reason as his lyrics have become more poignant and focussed. Begin The Begin is concerned with the revolutions undergone in America in recent history, but could also be a reference to the band beginning again now they have made a name for themselves, while songs like Cuyahoga and Flowers of Guatemala clearly have man’s attitude towards the environment at heart.

Lifes Rich Pageant is a different album to place. While it contains classic R.E.M. traits like Stipe and Mike Mills’ beautiful vocal harmonies found on Fall On Me, there is also the unfamiliar territory found in the anthemic chorus of What If We Gave It Away and the memorable album closer Superman, which doesn’t seem to fit into the album, despite it being a catchy song. However the album also houses the song which gives the best insight into the methods of the band. Despite beginning in classic, jangly R.E.M. style, I Believe shows the band to be one which never stops moving and always crave to do something different from what they have already done as Stipe sings ‘and change is what I believe in’ and ‘perfect is a fault, and fault lines change’.

This song shows why it is ok for some R.E.M.’s work to sound similar, as it is clear that the band are always trying to change and evolve their style lyrically, instrumentally and thematically. This is part of their “rich pageant” as a college band beginning to draw a larger crowd and more attention, and confirms the quality of what has gone before and the promise of what is to come next.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Vanishing Point - Vanishing Existentialism

One weekday morning last week when others were probably reluctantly starting their working day, i found myself rewatching a film that i was too tired to finish the night before. The film was called Vanishing Point. I had heard about it a few months ago after it being related to another film i had watched and after seeing it in a charity shop for a meagre £2, despite the horrific front cover, i bought it.

The premise of the film, as i understood it before watching, was that a man with a nice car is chased by the police resulting in 'the ultimate car chase movie', and, as the first few minutes of the film pass by this is all the film seems to promise. However as the film moves on and begins to near the hour mark and not a lot has happened, you begin to question whether there is anything more to Vanishing Point than a fast car and Kowalski's farcical brooding stares. Of course, there is.

After his bet that he can get to 'Frisco before 3 tomorrow afternoon' and through his dangerous evasions of the police and motley crew of acquaitances and friends, it is clear that Kowalski, perfectly acted by Barry Newman, represents much more than a delivery driver on a tight schedule. Dubbed 'the last American Hero' by radio DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), Kowalski, in his iconic Dodge Challenger, is a symbolises the counterculture movement of the 60s as he evades any means of control by those above him, with aid from his likeminded friends. However they choose to completley remove themselves from society living in the outback away from civilisation, while Kowalski chooses to take them on - he does not want to vanish.

Vanishing Point
is set in 1970 at a time when a paranoid white conservative government was trying to regulate the damage done to America by the 60s beat generation as well as restore the air of american exceptionalism to the outside world which had dimished after the Vietnam War. The film shows how the free spirits of the period who had such a significant influence on the culture of this time have been extradicted from "civilised" society and have to live in the wilderness. Kowalski's life ends in a ball of flame due to his refusal to become subservient to these new authorities and, instead of living his life as a vanishing point on the Colarado horizon, his life becomes a symbol of existentialism and is a message to all of those of the period to fight back against the rigid social parameters which they were expected to live in.

Vanishing Point is undoubtedly one of the best car chase movies of all time, but also one of the best and most inspiring adverts for existentialism in all forms of art. An obscure an overlooked film, which contains a powerful message which may make some of those "others" of today consider how they live their lives.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction - R.E.M.

As the ambiguous title suggests, R.E.M.’s third studio effort is difficult to place and may not make pleasant listening for fans of the band’s first two wonderful albums expecting to hear something similar. While Peter Buck’s characteristic jangly guitar is retained on songs such as Maps & Legends and Driver 8, ‘Fables is an album that sees the foursome experimenting both lyrically and instrumentally, containing songs with more obvious lyrics and a more layered sound.

This change can be heard immediately in the sudden opening guitar throngs of Feeling Gravity’s Pull which are then followed by the beautiful intertwining of Michael Stipe and Mike Mills’ voices – a combination which provided highlights on the band’s previous albums and continues to do so. New sounds for the band continue to manifest themselves on the album; the partnership of a jazzy guitar riff and a first use of a brass section for the band make Can’t Get There From Here one of the most impressive songs on the album and the final, banjo-led song, a slow ballad about an eccentric individual Wendell Gee provides a beautiful end to an eccentric album.

With references to both the Reconstruction period in America and the literary process of deconstruction in the title, the band’s lyrics on Fables are much more obvious influences than Murmur and Reckoning. Pastoral imagery of steam engines in Driver 8 and ‘the compass [that] points the workers home’ on arguably the best song on the album ‘Green Grow The Rushes’ show the influence of the landscape of the American South, while the slow ballads of Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee show the band addressing the myth and legend of the period. As well as this the album also sees the band’s first song that is openly about a relationship in Kohoutek. However there are also songs focussing on old themes for the band; on Feeling Gravity’s Pull Stipe describes falling asleep while reading, reflecting on the power of art and this theme is continued on the impressive Life And How To Live It showing how art is subjective and open to different interpretations from different people.

Fables of the Reconstruction is a tough album to get into and may take several listens to appreciate it fully. It sees the band tackle many different themes and ideas and produce changes to their sound and writing techniques, while retaining their most compelling traits – their poetic and enigmatic lyrics and the harmonies of Stipe’s voice with Mills’. The band are aware they have achieved something but just as aware that they must move on from this period to achieve greater things.

Much like the innocence of rural townships before the reconstruction of the southern states, R.E.M.’s innocence as a new band has gone, and this album says goodbye to the simple life of a college band hello to the complexities of being a full-time touring band and the challenges they face, through a series of challenging and enjoyable songs.


Article first published as R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction on Blogcritics.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The King Of Limbs - Radiohead

Any regular followers of Radiohead’s blog knew that this album would again be a leap away from the guitar-led anthems of The Bends and OK Computer which brought them worldwide acclaim a decade ago. Recent ‘Office Charts’ have included tracks by dubstep (N.B. I use the term loosely) prodigies Jamie Smith of (The xx) and Ramadanman as well electronic stalwarts Four Tet and Aphex Twin. The sound of the album, unlike the release, was something that could be predicted, albeit vaguely.

The album opens with Bloom, a juxtaposition of arpeggiated piano, fast drum beats and a strange bass melody which then leads to a wall of high-pitched synths in the second part of the song. As you work your way through the album this combination of fast-paced electronic drum beats and slower basslines (a method employed by The xx to great success recently) played by Colin Greenwood, dominate the album, forming the base of almost every song.

Despite a similar formula, each song is different in detail, and a captivating listen. The instrumental track Feral starts with angry drum beats punctuated with string squeals, while the slow piano melody of Codex, combined slow bass creates a standout track and rates as one of the band’s most beautiful and seductive of their entire catalogue.

However guitar is not completely absent from the album, while there is a few bends of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar on ­Little by Little, a song with Yorke’s traditional melancholy lyrics, the first and only guitar-led song comes with the light acoustic guitar on Give Up The Ghost. However the most noteworthy use of guitar comes with the final track of the album, Separator.

The song starts with bass drones, drum beats and faint guitar plucks before a beautiful guitar melody kicks in carrying you to a euphoric end of the album with the line ‘If you think this is over/ You’re wrong’. The song, as the album does as a whole, represents a moment of joy for the band. They no longer have to struggle to meet the deadlines of record labels, but can make music as they wish; comprising whatever styles and sounds they want, whether it is vintage Radiohead from the 90s, the experimental 00s, or something completely new.

The King Of Limbs represents freedom for the band and for music. Following the traditions of dubstep artists, the band urges people making music to produce and release it independently and to ‘do what you want’ (from the first single from the album, Lotus Flower). Once again Radiohead have made an intelligent, challenging album, completely in tune with the changing face of music today, and perhaps more importantly, highlighting what is to come.

As OK Computer was a zeitgeist album for 90s consumer society, The King Of Limbs is for the future of music in coming years.


Reckoning - R.E.M.

R.E.M.’s stunning 1983 debut effort Murmur was followed quickly in the next year with their second album Reckoning and it continues largely in the same vein; Peter Buck’s guitar still jangles and Michael Stipe’s voice is still barely coherent, however it is clear that the band have evolved.

Harborcoat, the album’s upbeat opener, shows the subtle changes that Reckoning contains; Bill Berry’s drums begin the album with a ferocity not seen in Murmur while Buck’s guitar jangles with a more pronounced clarity and sound also. Although the most noticeable change is with the combination of bassist Mike Mills’ and Stipe’s vocals, with Mills providing new sounds and harmonies in almost every song on the album. However Stipe is not outshone, and in (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, (a song written by Mills) he strikes probably the most beautiful vocal melodies he has recording thus far. Stipe’s lyrical style has also undergone a subtle change. While the trademark mumble of Murmur is still present on tracks like Letter Never Sent, he also conjures up thought-provoking images on tracks like 7 Chinese Bros. with ‘Seven thousand years the Communi did reign/Will she return?’ hinting at political motives, as well as the water imagery present on So. Central Rain and Pretty Persuasion portraying the changing life of the band as they gain fame and begin to tour.

Much of Reckoning then, is expanding the methods they used so well on Murmur, which they do successfully on the first side of the album, however the band also begins to demonstrate their experimental side and willingness to change their style. Time After Time (Annelise) employs hand percussion instead of normal drums and sounds like nothing else the band has released thus far, while the slow-paced Camera is powered almost exclusively by Mills’ bass and Stipe’s vocals, while Buck’s melodic guitar lines lurk underneath.

Clearly R.E.M. are a band with a lot to give. They are not afraid to move away from the successful style that brought them fame, employing different techniques to show off the talents of their different members, in their characteristically democratic way. However as the first four songs show, an indeed the album closer Little America, the band are still mainly fuelled by Buck’s ceaselessly inventive jangly guitar, and Stipe’s continuously provocative lyrics.

R.E.M. are in the process of evolving; Murmur and Reckoning can be looked at as the first chapter in their book, and it is undoubtedly a classic. Here are 22 simple stories, beautifully written and endlessly rewarding. The future is bright, with the sum of these four men’s talents, this band can go anywhere.