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In the late 1970s, Scritti Politti were a post-punk band-- a clanging, abstract, Marxist mess. By the mid-1980s, they were a sweet synth-heavy soul dream, and singer Green Gartside was a genuine pop star. That’s not so surprising-- a lot of punks went pop in those days. What’s remarkable is the depth at which Gartside was able to absorb and recreate r&b and soul. The music wasn’t just an influence on him; he became a part of it, and even exerted some small vanguard influence on it himself. His band became the test lab for soft, swooning, upwardly-mobile 1980s fern-bar soul-- you know, the kind of complex, jazz-inflected blue-eyed r&b that strips out everything but the pure dreamy sweetness of the form. This was the sound of a certain type of adult in the 1980s; it sounded gorgeous on expensive hi-fis and promised something good and comfortable about the world. And now, 30 years later and unfathomably far from punk, there’s this pure dreamy sweetness of this album-- Gartside’s first in seven years.
So Gartside is important, but the stuff that makes White Bread, Black Beer so great has nothing to do with “importance” or “influence”-- it’s exactly the opposite. Gartside recorded these songs at home, and their biggest feature is just Green in the back room, harmonizing with himself, sweetly and gracefully, over home-computer synths and beats. Some critics will say that those harmonies have something in common with Brian Wilson’s and the Beach Boys’, and there’s some truth to that. But Wilson’s songs were always grander than this: They were “teenage symphonies to god.” Gartside’s vocal-jazz harmonies sound more like middle-aged symphonies to the cat on the windowsill, or a lover just on the other side of the blanket; they sound contented and domestic. There’s always been that kind of intimacy to his voice, beloved by many and surely loathed by some-- it’s so plush, so treacly! Prince is the Prince of Minnesota; Gartside is the Prince of Wales.
You could guess that these songs were recorded at home, too: It’s in the sound of the music itself. The production is ambitious-- soft, smooth, and spacious as ever-- and Gartside’s writing is consistently complex, always plotting out the classiest and most striking shifts in the chord structures and harmonies. But all this sophistication doesn’t feel like some grand, expensive endeavor, like pop-soul always did in the 80s; it sounds like something that spilled privately out of Gartside’s head. After all, it’s difficult to think of any place besides that head where all the constituent parts of this sound-- glittery soft rock, lush and quiet r&b, vocal-jazz harmony, hip-hop love-- fit together naturally and unselfconsciously, sounding quite this simple and homespun. Those things are inseparable here, from the digital arrangements to the guitar playing. “Snow in the Sun” runs from laid-back pop twinkle through a series of a cappella harmonies and then into some computer-programmed funk-- and yet there’s never the trace of a feeling that anything about its style has shifted.
None of which quite gets at the endless softness and glamour and mature soul of the record. The thing is that this sort of music-- classy blue-eyed pop, adult in its lyrics and lush in its songwriting-- doesn’t get done much these days: It’s absolutely 1980s, only it’s an aspect of the decade hardly anyone bothers thinking about. Apart from Kelley Polar (and maybe Saint Etienne), I’d guess the last shot at this sound Pitchfork would have covered is XTC’s Oranges and Lemons, from 1989. That leaves this album sounding fresh, certainly-- and there’s another trick as well. The sweet pop-soul of the 1980s was for adults-- eloquent, sophisticated, and comfortable-- but it also aspired to glamour and wealth; it could primp and shine and get too slick for its own good. The pop coming from the back of Gartside’s apartment these days works better, because it’s adult in all honesty: unpretentiously adult, contented and domestic. It’s gorgeous, but it’s the opposite of grand, and those two things go wonderfully together-- there’s the feeling of something small, beautiful, and personal. It sounds good everywhere I’ve played it, but it sounds best when I’ve just finished cleaning the apartment.
There’s no doubt that this record won’t work for everyone. It’s a sophisticated, gloriously gentle thing in a time when lots of people need their music to bump or wail; it’ll be easy for some to call it cloying, saccharine, too unctuous. But either way, I’m beginning to think it’s one of the smartest records-- musically and lyrically-- we’ll hear all year.
-Nitsuh Abebe, July 10, 2006
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