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The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free

 article about Mike Skinner
Any groundbreaking debut album deserves your respect, but when
sophomore effort time comes around, the artist deserves sympathy,
patience and understanding. In an ideal world each album would be
judged on its own merit, untainted by the gleam of past success. But
it's not, so they're not, and unfortunately for Mike Skinner (aka The
Streets), not many debuts gleamed like Original Pirate Material.

Skinners
bow was THE critical darling of 2002/3. With its half-spoken,
half-rapped witty urban lyrics (all Kronenburg, birds and geezers set
to progressive hooks) it was the album that saved the burgeoning UK
garage scene from drowning in the swamp of self-parody created by
comedy tough guys So Solid Crew and beanie-hat wearing softie Craig
David.

Original Pirate Material was the proverbial breath of
fresh air, and with lyrics like You say that everything sounds the same
/ Then you go buy them. / Theres no excuses my friend / Lets push
things forward it seemed that he knew it.

Skinner would seem
to be a prime candidate for second album syndrome. If he retreads the
same (or a similar) path he risks being labeled a one trick pony by
expectant critics. If he heads off in a new direction, then previously
loyal fans will make for the exits. So, to appease both groups, the new
album needs to be both same and different; this brain-hurting paradox
only hints at just how fraught with danger the whole things is. They
dont call it the difficult second album for nothing.

Yet
Skinner has pulled off the seemingly impossible on A Grand Dont Come
For Free, walking the very thin tightrope between old and new, same and
different. The same sharp wit, the same catchy hooks, the same old
slightly off-key but oddly appealing singing. The deviation from this
well-established ground is that A Grand Dont Come For Free is a concept
album. Stop rubbing your eyes; you read that correctly.

The
albums 11 tracks tell a simple yet satisfying tale. Nothing elaborate
and prog-rock like (nothing about goblins or werewolves,) just an
old-fashioned boy meets girl, boy loses girl story, plus the titular
thousand pounds and a spot of recreational drug use. Its all very
focused, never straying from the narrative, so the playful boasting of
Original Pirate Material (in 500 years theyll play this song in
museums) is wisely put aside in favour of exploring the characters
various emotional states.

Where Original Pirate Material could
be likened to a sketch show - unrelated little vignettes populated by
hilarious but one-dimensional characters, A Grand Dont Come For Free is
more complete. As you listen to the album in its entirety (and you
should) its not hard to visualise as a film, a low budget British
feature starring Mike Skinner (left) as himself. Alongside our main
protagonist, the cast of supporting characters take turns to share
centre stage, each time advancing the plot with the kind of narrative
twists that Syd Field himself would approve of. In fact, its so much
like a film that I wont spoil it by giving away the ending.

More
than just a gimmicky conceit, the plot is driven by the music, with
enough room for some Original Pirate Material style social observation
along the way. The greatest success here, and the reason this works as
a concept album (and how often can you say that?) is that the tracks
follow and mirror the characters emotions perfectly. As with all good
films, you genuinely care what happens to this character.

However,
the nature of the story dictates that the tone of this album is more
downbeat than its predecessor, so its difficult to see many singles
being harvested from A Grand Dont Come For Free; such is the price of
creating a story-centric long player. The only exception is Fit But You
Know It which, with its (almost) annoyingly catchy chorus and glam-rock
sample, provides a much needed change of pace midway through, and
coinciding with Skinners alter egos emotional upswing.

This
more mature, same but different, perfectly judged follow up is now the
shining example of how to one-up yourself, so kudos to Mike Skinner.
The only question now is: hows he ever going to top this?




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