White Bread Black Beer
That voice. Those lyrics. That candy coating.
This must be Scritti Politti.
And indeed, so it is. The thing about Scritti Politti albums is that they’ve always had a sense of place. Cupid and Psyche 85 and Provision were both recorded in air-conditioned studios, and sound it. Which is not a rap, at their best Scritti Politti were pop at its purest, most bubble-about-to-break.
Gloriously transient, but they got one or two good albums out of it, and their sequenced texture helped make them hits on mid-’80s radio. Psyche contained the groups’s biggest hits “Perfect Way” and “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” Provision doesn’t have as many good songs but I still like it, especially “Boom! There She Was.”
White Bread Black Beer was recorded and mixed “At home in East London,” and sounds it. This album has an easy going feel suggesting the man who made it didn’t think there was much of a need to throw himself at the pop charts again.
That man, Green Gartside, who was always Politti’s chief writer and lead singer and is now the band, found maintaining in the music business too (his word) “painful.” Fortunately, he didn’t make the mistake that some have and produce an album about that. He just shut up for a while.
Now he’s back with his first album in seven years, and the first to get this kind of attention in almost twice that. It’s being rapturously received by the critics.
The candy coating is still there, especially on songs like “The Boom Boom Bap” and “Petrococadollar,” but it sounds less like a commercial consideration; more organic.
If there’s a theme to the lyrics as I hear them, it’s about searching within oneself while fighting against paralysis. “No Fine Lines” starts with the declaration of its title, then adds, “or there are more than I can draw.” But ends with the challenge “What matters now, though, is can you reach the windowsill?”
“Snow In The Sun” offers, in the title, an image which pinpoints a feeling I get listening to Gartside’s songs. It’s also the most soulful song on the album. Lyrically, here he continues my inferred theme by asserting: “There’ll be something good about me soon/ Like sun in the city snow.”
All this may say more about how I hear these lyrics than how he wrote them, of course. Gartside’s lyrics are many things, most of them positive, but few would ever call them vivid. But when his voice enters, who cares?
Although there are plenty of synths about, the place they would have taken in some of the arrangements of the old days have been filled by Gartside’s multi-tracked vocals, used to most heartfelt effect on “Window Wide Open.” The man’s got a voice like a sweetener so natural there’s just no way to make it sound any uglier than bittersweet. Unless, of course, you pay attention to the lyrics. When he sings “Punks jump up, to get beat down” on “Dr. Abernathy,” well, probably no one has ever sounded quite so content with that situation.
It’s only later when you sit down with the lyric booklet you realize the song is about being in love with an addict… I think.
“Locked” may be the most unpretentious song Gartside has ever written. For once not letting obscurity disguise his meaning, he tells the object of his affection, “When the day is done/ I’ve played my party piece for everyone/ I’ll close and lock the door…and you’ll be there.”
Fortunately (?), “Mrs. Hughes” is a Return To Obscurity, but gets three points for the Julie Andrews allusion in the lyric alone. Similarly, “After Six” and “E Eleventh Nuts” show Gartside hasn’t lost his gift for silken interlocution:
“Keep your love away from me, Jesus, keep your hands where I can see.”
“First I hit a rock, then I hit a roll, now I’m hitting on you.”
Other critics have been drawing comparisons between this album and the work of The Beach Boys and Paul Simon. Those comparisons aren’t out of whack. I’d add Prefab Sprout, Marvin Gaye, maybe Paul Young, and the homemade nature of the album, as well as Gartside’s voice, sometimes recalls Paul McCartney.
However, I can’t sign on with those who are raising the point of White Bread Black Beer being Gartside’s best ever. It’s a rich album to be sure, but… call me a 1980s nostalgic (I am), on a handful of tracks I really missed the concentrated sound that David Gamson and Fred Maher once helped bring to this music.
Still, though. That voice. Those lyrics. That candy coating. This must be Scritti Politti.
Rough Trade Records: www.roughtraderecords.com