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Sub dude
Mike Skinner takes his Streets to a new low

In his 1998 concert movie Dressed To Kill, Eddie Izzard, the kimono-clad British comic who likes to call himself an "executive transvestite," did a bit on what’s bad about British movies that foretold what’s good about the new album by Mike Skinner, the pale and scrawny British producer and rhyme slinger who likes to call himself the Streets. "We’ve got known in Britain for making the smaller films, you know. They’re kind of A Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond–type movies. Films with very fine acting, but the drama is rather sort of subdued . . . subsumed or . . . a word like that. Sub-something or another. You know, just folded in and everything’s people opening doors . . . And you can’t eat popcorn to that! You’re going [mimes trying to eat popcorn but gets frustrated and throws it back down with a sigh]."

The Streets’ eagerly awaited second full-length CD, A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic), is a concept album rife with drama that’s subdued, or subsumed, or sub-something or another. Although I don’t recall many doors opening, a lot of the action is just as slight, with pint-sized music to match the pint-filled life of the disc’s antihero, a young working-class "geezer" named Mike. In one song ("Blinded by the Lights"), Mike stands around a busy nightclub waiting for his mates to show and the drugs to kick in as a slow club beat pulses beneath a mysterious and unrelenting three-note synth ostinato. In another ("Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way"), Mike sits on the sofa with his girl "roaching a spliff" and watching the match on television while a soul singer with a West Indies inflection softly croons about domestic bliss, like an incantation against boredom. And in every third or fourth number, the music breaks up momentarily as Mike fumbles with his cell phone, trying to find it in his jacket, trying to find the best reception in his kitchen, trying to dial a number before the charge dies. As for Skinner’s celebrated lyrics, they don’t so much "fold in" as mince Mike’s story, offering short-word spurts that are often more like besotted pub prattle than parsed raps. "Could Well Be In," for example, is about Mike fancying a bird he just met: "I saw this thing on ITV the other week/Said that if she played with her hair, she’s probably keen/She’s playing with her hair, well, regularly/So I reckon I could well be in." And that’s the chorus.

The thing is (as Mike would say, delaying the big gulp with three more quick nibbles), you can eat popcorn to A Grand Don’t Come for Free, at least most of the time, as Skinner rarely fails to advance the plot and fill out the characterizations with each still-life song. In the opening cut, Mike loses a shoebox stuffed with a thousand pounds, and in the remaining 10, he struggles to come to terms with his loss in different ways, with that subplot about finding a bird offering classic counterpoint throughout. This drama is much smaller in scale than that of most concept albums — even the disc’s most obvious everydude precursors, the Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia and Prince Paul’s "hip-hopera" A Prince Among Thieves, went for a life-and-death sweep that Skinner has no use for. There’s an exciting novelty to this understatement that makes the album more literary than pop, and more British than American.

But if that takes us back to A Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond, Izzard’s comedy routine also shows how scale is only the half of it. If Hollywood moguls decided to remake a Brit film, Izzard jokes, they wouldn’t just up the budget and heighten the drama, they’d bring the dialogue down to earth. In Izzard’s original, the doors are opened upon properly restrained Englishmen: "What is it, Sebastian? I’m arranging matches." In Izzard’s Americanized version, it changes to "You’re fucking in here all the time! All the time you’re in here with the fucking matches! In here with the fucking matches!"

Of course, from Look Back in Anger to your favorite Mike Leigh mess, English film has been in there with the fucking matches on and off for decades. But in hip-hop, this terrain has only recently been discovered by young British artists like the Streets and Dizzee Rascal (who play together this Monday at Avalon) — in America, not even underground conceptualists like Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif focus on the pavement so assiduously. No doubt there’s a cost to this focus. Until the brilliant double ending, "Empty Cans," A Grand Don’t Come for Free almost never lifts as high as the Streets’ far more traditional debut, 2002’s Original Pirate Material (exception: the rocking "Fit But You Don’t Know It," which takes place on Mike’s holiday). But by staying low this time, Skinner finds a side door no one has ever used before, and then he does his best to pull his fans through it.

The Streets and Dizzee Rascal appear this Monday, June 28, at Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston; call (617) 423-6398.

Issue Date: June 25 - July 1, 2004
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