26 February 2009
Music Snob Journal #3: Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer
I'm not sure if Scritti Politti is really music snob territory cause to me it sounds like how pop should be. But I guess what sets Scritti apart from the majority of pop out there is that lead singer (and these days the sole member) Green Gartside is much too intelligent compared to the average pop muppet. In fact, even the punky early days of Scritti, Green was a bit too wordy... the band name itself referencing Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci... you can read the band's Wiki here to find out more about the fascinating rise of Scritti from punky to pop to hip hop(?) to more indie-ish singer songwriter fare. I expect his next album will be another genre-jumper...

I first came across Scritti when I saw a videoclip of one of their late 1980s singles -- the still-pretty sounding "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)" featuring a sans-beard Green in a fetching hat looking rather pretty... (with a Miles Davis trumpet solo to boot!) I would've embedded the youtube clip of the song here if it hadn't been taken off... copyright issues methinks.

Anyway, I bought the cassette (I have since acquired the CD) of the album where "Oh Patti" came from, 1988's "Provision". It was their follow up to what is still considered by many their timeless classic "Cupid & Psyche 85". (I didn't manage to listen to "C&S 85" until last year... it is pretty!) I fell instantly in love with the band... because of the sparkling melodies (I still listen to "Boom! There She Was" all the time)... the hmm "intelligent" yet dippy lyrics... the intricate midi blue-eyed R&B pop soul funk arrangements (it's very 1980s! kinda Hall & Oates-ish)... and that voice!

Green Gartside has a voice that will divide listeners. It's a bit slight and thin. Not exactly reedy or airy. But kind of compact, cute and coy, like how you'd imagine a 12 year old would sing... kind of Justin Timberlake without the sex or Jordan Knight without the emoting. It's a voice that works strangely well when singing about puppy love. But unlike most other singers who cater for the tween pop market, Green is neither your regular heartthrob or really interested in high schoolers... on an earlier album "Songs To Remember" he has a song called "Jacques Derrida".

Which is probably why after "Provisions" I didn't much about Scritti anymore... what happened was Green got disillusioned by the music industry in the USA and returned to his native Wales... he came out with a hip hop rap album in the 1999 called "Anomie & Bonhomie". I haven't heard that album... but I've seen a few youtube clips and wasn't really impressed... the album kinda flopped and Green apparently went to live as a recluse in Wales, living off his 80s royalties.

And then... I came across a rather glowing review of his 2006 comeback album "White Bread Black Beer" on Pitchfork which got 8.1 from Nitsuh Abebe. I was obsessed with wanting a CD copy (yes I still do buy CDs!), eventually buying mine almost a year after it had been released down in good old Singapore.


Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer (Rough Trade, 2006)

1. The Boom Boom Bap
2. No Fine Lines
3. Snow in Sun
4. Cooking
5. Throw
6. Dr. Abernathy
7. After Six
8. Petrococadollar
9. E Eleventh Nuts
10. Window Wide Open
11. Road To No Regret
12. Locked
13. Mrs. Hughes
14. Robin Hood

The biggest shock that I got while listening to WBBB was Green's voice. You'd think it would've aged... but the unhealthy diet of the album title must be doing wonders for Green because he sounds the same as he did in 1988. Incredible... not many people would concur but I think Green's voice is sexy... he's also quite good looking too (I do have a thing for guys with beards!)... (If I could only have Green Gartside on one side of the bed and David Sylvian on the other both crooning to me at the same time, I'd die a happy man!).

The other big shock of WBBB was the mood of the album... unlike the glossy synthscapes of "Provision", WBBB was darker, featured guitars(!), the electronics more muted, and darker lyrics... about what I'm not exactly sure... but there's definitely a sense that age, experience, maturity, cynicism, opaqueness, and a quiet sense of resignation has crept in... in a good way, that is. No longer is the music in the service of puppy subject matter. Though some Scritti fans scoff at WBBB as not being as essential as his mid to late 80s stuff, I disagree vehemently.

WBBB is Scritti Politti's best collection of songs ever committed to record. It's intimate and mostly mellow, with melodic tunes that range from lovely to funny, uncluttered and yet full of interesting asides... like the Beach Boys-ish four-part vocal harmonies that introduce "Snow In Sun" one of my favourite songs on the album; the harmonies also pop up all over. And then there's that lovely intro to "Dr Abernathy" before it turns into the most upbeat song on the album about some guy who wants heroin... and mescaline... but it's balanced by a delicateness of touch... it could've easily become an indulgent album, with overly emo lyrics (Note to self: maybe tone down the emo, Jerome, for your next album...LOL) but Green knows when enough is enough and when to push a point just slightly that it stays like some seed in your head until one day you find that it's become some kind of park.

One of the reasons why I can't really dig heavy music is because I like to hear the words coming out of the singer's mouth. (Although for a while I liked death metal... but I think that was an isolated case of having a crush on this guy I knew who had a death metal band...LOL). Anyway, Green is a rather precise singer, and obviously the way he sings and the way WBBB was produced really gives prominence to the voice and words! Thank you!

The other shocking thing is WBBB is the quality of Green's songwriting. All the songs are really incredibly well-written... arrgghhh... why can't I write songs like this???!! It's because I'm not Green Gartside, that's why.... arrgghhh!!! Oh well... one must find peace with one's lot in life otherwise there'd be nothing but strife... I mean, how many pints of beer does it take to come up with easy-flowing subtle lyrics such as these?

from No Fine Lines:

And there are no fine lines

Or there are more than I can draw
Got crossed from here and there
Between each after and before
Tying everything together
So I can't make it anymore

from Dr Abernathy:

I wonder how I'm feeling now
I don't suppose I should've chosen that stuff
How much is enough
I don't quite hear the dime drop
The buck stop or the bells

I stole a glance at circumstance
It's way too big for them to figure outside
In the exercise yard
The three winds blow
The Dear Johns
It won't be long

Round and round, punks jump up
To get beat down
All the days of my life, love

from After Six:

Please keep your love away from me

Jesus keep your hands where I can see
There's nobody here you can trust
I'll break every bone if I must
Wisdom keep your hands away from me"

from Snow In Sun:

I was watching you sleep
I've been watching you dream
Should we be beset with trouble
I would never let you come to harm

Looks like maybe we'll lose our home
Out of pocket and all alone
I should've worked and I should've known
Seen the dirt clouds coming

And you will never be without me
I'll be beside you never doubt me
There'll be something good about me soon
Like sun on the London snow
Like snow in the London sun

from Window Wide Open:

Slept with her window wide open
And longed for the touch of (?)
Stroking her skin with true lover's fingers
From Parliament Hill down to Greenwich it lingers
The seconds in a small moonlit room
She remembers how love feels for you

(This song comes with a gorgeous guitar solo btw.)

It is pop, with tiny yet profound revelations and winsome tunes! (Oh how I love winsome tunes!) But it's also more. Well, whatever it is, who cares? It's one of my favourite albums... love it, love it!

There were no music videos shot for this album... here's one of Green performing for the Mercury Prize show. He lost to Arctic Monkeys that year. Jools Holland got the title wrong. It's actually "Snow In Sun" not "Sun In Snow"... ah but who knows where that sun really is?

Labels: , ,

Blogger Bing said...
Also reminded me in places of Simon and Garfunkel - clear enunciation and pitch au Garfunkel and lines like those you excerpted from After Six, and some you didn't from Road To No Regret, au Simon. Not to mention the close harmonies.

I tried these and a few other apt tracks on a S & G fan and they worked, hit that Simon and Garfunkel spot.

Blogger JK said...
Ah yes of course. Paul Simon also employs those short phrases - one not for each syllable. I also love S&G. :-)

Thanks for the comment.