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Monday, April 21, 2003  
The Streets (and also Cornelius [but not Susumu Yokota])

Definitive list of 2002’s favourites? Bollocks! How did I forget The Streets? God knows, but you can now consider it included, not at the expense of any of those other albums listed somewhere below but as an addition (it wouldn’t be fair to delete one of the others simply because my memory is shocking).

I wrote the end-of-year poll blurb for Original Pirate Material on Stylus, and claimed it was “like looking in a mirror” if you were a 20-something British male. Obviously, considering it’s cult status on the other side of the pond, the British thing isn’t strictly necessary. I guess garage originated in the US, and that’s where Skinner finds himself posited most often, though to be honest he’s more like your typical bedroom laptop kid from anytown, anycountry than some blinging garage producer or MC. He’s got a pleasingly DIY ethos and a greater degree of sensitive (and self-indulgent) insight than your MJ Coles and Craig Dayayayayayayavids. He’s a bedsit auteur. I see much more of his lineage in The Specials than anything else; Let’s Push Things Forward begins with a brass hook disarmingly similar to Ghost Town for one thing, plus his position as an outsider/observer riddled with distaste/fascination for the culture he’s nominally involved in put him close to the “I wouldn’t dance in a club like this / the girls are all slags / and the beer tastes just like piss” lyrical chops of the young Terry Hall. Isn’t Mr Skinner a midlander too? Albeit one who’s fled to Londinium.

Geezers Need Excitement shows off the positive side of his insight, a thought-provoking (but not that profound) document of lad culture that neither condones nor condemns the participants, but rather seeks to understand just how young men can get dragged into the booze-and-fights lifestyle that’s so prevalent in provincial Britain. The Irony Of It All is the rather condescending flipside of his charm though, loaded with the conceited ennui of the heavy toker, further supporting the erroneous weed=natural=good=holier-than-booze meme that is part of the reason I find serious dopeheads so irritating (that and their deathly dull obsessions with cod-philosophical insights and useless kitsch nobrow cultural inconsequentialities [Playstations, kung-fu movies, MTV, the eternal stoner’s desire to be ‘deep’ via received Chinese-whispered wisdom that might once have had something to do with Einstein of Jung], both of which he also mentions). Skinner is sharp and strangely beguiling, his almost dissonant anti-song voice cringe worthy and off-putting but so natural and honest (despite its clear affectation) and different that it becomes hard to resist. “Get fucked-up with the boys” is a depressingly eager cry during Too Much Brandy, a shopping list of easily-available ways to get off one’s face, a litany of aimless self-abuse, Hunter S Thompson lost the passion and fire that gave purpose to his ludicrous excess, a little boy lost slightly scared and ashamed of what he’s done but also possessed of the prideful braggadocio that impels him to show off. He’s in thrall to his mates and afraid to follow his own ambitions for fear of leaving the cocoon he’s built for himself (Don’t Mug Yourself). It’s Too Late further waxes his perception of himself as helpless social retard, unable to sustain a real relationship because he’s caught up in the insouciant anti-success trap, too disenfranchised to get off the sofa for anything other than scoring, too emotionally stunted and immature to commit. Is this first person Skinner himself or just a character, putting women on a pedestal without asking and then ignoring them when they fail to match his expectations? My guess is the latter, but that the character is Skinner himself in a younger and more misguided incarnation.

And then there are the chap’s beats and tunes, which is really what drags you in. He locked himself away for three years, inspired by Hendrix’s self-imposed exile to learn guitar, intending to become “the best at tunes” and it God-damn nearly worked. Who Got The Funk? is “just a groove” and that’s fine, a nice phat bass and some squidgy wah-wah jerking for a couple of minutes with no purpose other than to exist. Elsewhere big pulpit organs and gentle cuts of piano rub up with snatches of strings, all the while over this pulse that’s not really garage (not that I know what that is) and not really house and not really hip hop but that seemingly has the last decade and a half of UK club culture scratched into it like slogans of laconic rebellion on school tables. Has It Come To This? has a definite dancefloor throb, accentuated by the snippets of “oh-oh-oh” vocals over the top, and his words betray a youth spent trying to desperately lose oneself in sweaty clubs and find oneself in dodgy pubs. He’s in love with the romance of dance culture, name checking Rampling and Tenaglia, but too young to have lived it properly in it’s first flush of rush and pump, fooling himself into believing the mythology, unable and unwilling to see the old-school of DJs who made their names in 88 grasping desperately to the past and preventing the genre being moved on, or the superclubs homogenising the country’s disparate dialects of dance music into one big, ugly, amorphous trance behemoth intent on consuming your local lager-carpeted shitpit and sending everyone to Ibiza. Skinner comes at club culture almost from the opposite direction to Simon Reynolds, an organic, naïve yearning to be a part of something exciting that he’s grown up watching from afar but not been allowed to participate in, the eternal young boy’s desire to impress older brothers/friends. Both seek to understand it, but Skinner is unconcerned with hermeneutics and paradigm shifts and theories; he wants to know why it’s not as great as he’d been led to believe, whether it’s always been a false Holy Grail or whether it’s recently hit the rough, his ability to synthesise the evidence and form a conclusion hindered by spliffs and Smirnoff Ice.

Since before the release of Original Pirate Material the UK club industry has been in decline, but over the last 12 months it’s collapsed into startling freefall. I doubt that Skinner consciously predicted this, but maybe, in his darkest moments, he could detect the beginnings of its death. In some ways he’s like Big Star, desperately trying to recapture the British Invasion when it was long dead; like Chilton and Bell we love Skinner because he’s a romantic idealist, no matter how disillusioned he becomes, not content to document the death of the thing he loves because he thinks he can save it. Weak Become Heroes sounds strangely like an elegy for Britain’s dance culture, somehow juxtaposing the everybody-welcome utopia of house as it was first conceived all those years ago with an intangible and profound sadness, that looped organ stab filled with poignancy. “The world stands still as my mind sloshes round…/ my life’s stood still since I walked from that crowd…/ we all smile / we all sing…”, the last six words full of positivism but delivered with the same despondency and dejection as those that precede. Because when the party’s over you’ve always got to try and clear up and keep up. Stay Positive gives us the unfortunate reality that many people get lost trying.

But its not all misery, it really isn’t. The main reason I love Original Pirate Material so much is cos it’s fun; Skinner’s beats and rhymes are exciting and amusing and enjoyable, and OPM signals the emergence of a promising and singular talent. My only qualm is that I suspect many trendy London types only big it up because it mentions place names they’ll recognise from the tube ride home…

As well as The Streets I also happened to chance upon Point by Cornelius, sniffer-dog head firmly in place after the name cropped up a couple of times on I Love Music in positive comparison with my much beloved Up In Flames by Manitoba. Point can also consider itself included in 2002’s list of a dozen (as it has become) favourites. Less drum-crazy and chaotic than UIF, it’s still invigoratingly eclectic and in love with music, with sonics, with enjoying itself. Flits of acoustic and electric guitar dance across the speakers like hummingbirds, the few words that appear from time to time are in Japanese, the drums live or programmed are delicious and jerky. Neither dance, nor ambient, nor rock, Cornelius is trading in solipsistic Odd Pop, where strangulated guitar noise can sit comfortably with harps and electronic washes and vocal harmonies, and a melody is never far away. Not as spectacularly great as Up In Flames, Point is nonetheless a terrific ride for 45 minutes.

However, Susumu Yokoto’s beautiful and brittle The Boy & The Tree narrowly misses out on a place in last year’s list because of it’s overly mannered aesthetic. Like the meticulous rituals that the Japanese observe in the preparation of tea, Yokoto’s ambient dance music is strange and delicate and beguiling, but also alien and distant. And, most importantly, it distracts you from being able to enjoy the thing in hand, whether it be a cup of tea or a piece of music. As strictly defined and elaborate as Cornelius’ work is too, he has managed to produce something more lightweight and enjoyable than Yokota. Cornelius, like Manitoba, wants you to enjoy his music; Yokota, like Boards Of Canada, wants you to be impressed. Ultimately I’m not so keen on that.

4/21/2003 06:52:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005