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Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer

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Artist: Scritti Politti

Album: White Bread Black Beer

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Aug. 20, 2006

Scritti Politti’s history has been retold so often lately that it’s become a music-fan brainwash mantra: leader Green Gartside as the dedicated Marxist; Gartside gets black music; Gartside goes deconstructionist; Gartside discovers hip hop. With each step down the chain, Gartside loses his commitment to any ‘science of history’; adrift within endless deferral of meaning, Scritti songs became lexical mazes. But by the time of 1999’s Anomie and Bonhomie, most listeners had lost faith, too. What a conundrum: spend your entire career emphasising distance from your own texts, and the audience become mere dots on an ever-receding horizon.

Anomie and Bonhomie was unfocused, though the jangling guitars of opening cut “Umm” point gently in the direction Gartside takes on White Bread Black Beer, his comeback-not-comeback record. (Seven years isn’t really so long in Gartside-pop time, particularly when you’re living on Guinness, the drink whose head takes forever to form.) The result of extended home-studio hive mind, White Bread Black Beer is light and breezy, and the production on the record squares off the two seemingly wildly divergent threads of Gartside’s career: DIY self-actualisation and glossy pop.

Which leaves us with the songs: dreamy things, restrained and intimate, they internalize their own meta-musical devotion. (Love of hip hop is a thematic concern here, but not a structural conceit.) Most of White Bread Black Beer is almost unbearably lovely. Gartside’s voice sounds great, that reedy falsetto multi-tracked into gorgeous McCartney-esque swarms of harmony; the production gives each song an odd, wafer-thin gloss, offering up glinting shafts of textural light. “The Boom Boom Bap” edges its way into your unconscious slyly; “Cooking” is one of Gartside’s most affecting songs; several others are melodically rich, fulsome, sweet…

Sickly sweet, in fact. Not everything here works: “Dr. Abernathy” and “Mrs. Hughes” are modular constructs, and to be honest they’re a bit of a mess; “Snow in Sun” is tooth-rottingly twee, and Gartside’s voice and lyrics can get a bit cute. As an offset to the threads of regret and remorse that run through the songs, penance for bad things done and worse things left undone, well, that’s fine, but sometimes I wished for a bit more sour in the song, some grit in the oyster.

But hearing Gartside’s gorgeous voice prompts that most un-Scritti of responses - untroubled sentimentality. This connects the listener to the only over-arching theme you can really source from the record: veiled tribute to love as a salve for the endlessly troubled ‘life of the mind.’ It’s Gartside’s long-time-coming response to the tortured depictions of romance and betrayal in 1979’s “Confidence." Indeed, one wonders whether White Bread Black Beer is also an obscure answer to those early, crazed years of Scritti post-punk. After all, the closing “Robin Hood” wishes for the song’s protagonist to "be king - one day, we’ll share the treasures of the world": a pretty big call from the guy who on his very first single critiqued The Clash’s self-depiction as Robin Hood-esque characters raring to bring the world to rights.

Maybe our man has finally found something to believe in.

By Jon Dale

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