Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Streets
A Grand Don't Come For Free

Released 2004 on Locked On
Reviewed by Billy Milk, 13/05/2004ce

Mike Skinner's The Streets's conquest of the mainstream with his astonishing debut Original Pirate Material was an effortless process. Transcending the limited appeal of the nascent UK garage scene, here was a talent rare. Skinner had his finger on the pulse in a way that few artists manage. An instinctive lyricist with an eye for detail, a wicked sense of humour and a rhyming grip on the vernacular, Skinner was clearly destined for big things.
It's taken him two years to follow up that debut and many feared that success and cash would dull his lyrical and musical shine. Accusations that Skinner was somehow not the real deal (some said he was some middle class kid dealing ghetto knowledge to Guardian readers) are finally laid to rest with the marvellous A Grand Don't Come for Free.
Rather than come back with more of the same, Skinner has obviously taken stock of his situation and gone that little bit deeper. The first surprise is that the CD constitutes – and there's no easy way of saying this – a concept album. But banish thoughts of Tommy, War of the Worlds or any number of bombastic 70s fripperies on ice, Skinner, in his own words, has pushed things forwards.
Rather than drawing on some ancient myth or Tolkien book, this 'ere concept album is basically about a missing £1,000 and a knackered telly. There are characters that appear and reappear throughout the songs and the story progresses to a satisfactory resolution. Moreover, there's more drama in these brief vignettes than in your average episode of Bad Girls.
Skinner remains the mouthpiece of bored youth, the feckless ravers content to sit around on spliff-burned sofas, drinking Tennents Super and fretting about mobile phones. Skinner's Everyman character is hit by several knocks throughout the story – the loss of the titular grand earmarked for an 18-30-style holiday, the suspicion that his "bird" is knocking off his best mate, the perils of gambling on football when you don't have a clue about the game.
What pulls the album together is Skinner's feel for the dramatic in the mundane, the perfect moment of clarity in a fugged up lifestyle. Most of all his big-hearted sense of humanity – a crucial element in Original Pirate Material – is as strong as ever. His characters may be losers with little hope of escaping their environment, but they're just as human as anyone else. Skinner goes through a whole range of emotions as the story reaches its denouement, from boredom, elation and love to blind rage, before finally reaching an epiphany in the last song.
As for the tracks themselves, there are no shortage of classics. The single Fit But You Know It is an obvious highlight. A cross between Ian Dury, Jilted John and the Mekons, it's already an anthem. Other stuff is stronger still. Dry Your Eyes is a beautiful break-up ballad with massive hit potential. Could Well Be In is great too. Skinner reckons he's pulled on account of a girl playing with her hair which, according to ITV, is certain body language for sexual attraction.
Throughout, Skinner's music is bang up to date. A little less roughneck than the debut, but still street-smart. Big string loops, phat beats, chunky bass lines and kick drums that kick are par for the course. Production tricks abound, the drop-outs and rewinds that litter the CD are nods to dub and reggae soundsystems.
On the last track, Empty Cans, he even steals a ruse from cinema with a double-ending. The first one comes with Skinner succumbing to drunken despair, beating up the TV repairman and promising retribution. Separated by a rewind, the happy ending is simply one of those moments in pop that stays with you forever. It's UK garage meets Sliding Doors and all the better for it.
So, another giant step for Mike Skinner. Alongside A Grand Don't Come for Free, most other modern music seems feeble.

Reviews Index