New York

Live: The Streets Have No Business Onstage

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streetscolor.jpg
Common sense. Simple common sense. (Mike Skinner portrait by Grant Siedlecki)

The Streets + Lady Sovereign
Webster Hall
June 27, 2006

It’s amazing how one overdetermined hypeman can turn a spotty show into a complete trainwreck. I don’t know the name of the diesel black dude who sings the hooks on Streets albums, but I’m pretty sure he’s already considering launching a solo career, a record label, a clothing line, a cologne, and an action figure by the end of the year. While Mike Skinner amiably ambled around the wings, this guy grabbed the center of the stage, sang modified Pussycat Dolls lyrics at girls in the crowd, danced around in a silk boxing robe, played bass, sang over virtually every one of Skinner’s lines, and generally did everything within his power to get people to pay attention to him instead of Skinner. And Skinner seemed content to let it happen; at one point, he even toweled the man off. This would all be well and good, except for one thing: the dude cannot sing. If Skinner is worried that he doesn’t have the charisma or stage presence to hold things down by himself for an hour-plus, I can sympathize with his concern, but that doesn’t mean he should let his no-talent homeboy take over the show.

Honestly, I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking going to this show. Mike Skinner doesn’t make live music, and there’s no reason for anyone to expect him to be able to translate his persona to the stage. The first two Streets albums, masterpieces both, succeeded on detail and intimacy; Skinner using his beats as simple sonic wallpaper for his big-hearted and recognizable everydude persona. Skinner barely raps, but the pathos in his voice and the telling asides in his lyrics move him out of rap and put him more into the tradition of verbose, articulate songwriters like Craig Finn and John Darnielle, guys who put the writing before the song. It’s the little things; I love how he talks about peeling the labels off beer bottles or playing Gran Turismo. And when he puts that writer’s eye into a sweepingly sad song like “Dry Your Eyes,” the result is just breathtaking. Things are a bit different on The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, the new one; it’s the first Streets album that’s not a fearless leap into the unknown, and I don’t much identify with Skinner’s stories about smashing hotel rooms and fucking coked-up pop stars. But he’s famous now, and it would read false if he still talked about being a perma-broke corndog now. These days, he sounds tense a lot more often than he sounds expansive, but I guess that’s how famous people are. The focus is more on the beats now, and they’ve got more of a tense, rubbery snap than anything he’s done in the past. The album makes a pretty good case that he can keep churning these things out every couple of years forever, and that’s good news; even if he’s not dropping epics anymore, it’s still good to hear him talking shit. But even the new album is obsessive bedroom-producer stuff, and it’s a bit jarring seeing him go from doing that to whipping his shirt off and diving into the crowd.

Skinner is funny onstage. He’s not a rapper, but he does his lines just fine, and he dances charmingly and reacts pricelessly to his hypeman’s excesses (“I did not need to see that” when the hypeman teased taking his shirt off). And he makes for a low-key but engaging frontman: jumping in the air on the “jumping when she claps and that” line on “Don’t Mug Yourself,” singing off-key renditions of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Music Sounds Better With You” and “I Love Rock n Roll,” getting the entire crowd to squat down to the ground and then jump up on cue for no reason beyond “it looks wicked, trust me.” Sometimes he could stand to cool out on all the antics: when he tried to simultaneously rap and pour drinks for the front row on “Too Much Brandy,” he pretty much stopped paying attention to the rapping part. But he’s a lot of fun to watch, and the show would’ve worked just fine if it was just him and a DJ onstage. It wasn’t to be, though; even without the hypeman, the show would’ve been a bit of a mess. Skinner became the third rapper I’d seen in three nights to perform with a live band, and it doesn’t work for him. Jay-Z‘s 50-piece symphony added an epic elegance to his Reasonable Doubt show, and Slug‘s sleepy funk dudes noodled aimlessly sometimes but occasionally pulled off an impressively stormy build. But Skinner’s band just half-assed everything, clattering up the already-hectic beats and turning his tracks into garbled, off-center nothings. There was no guitarist, and so the bass player tried to do the “Fit But You Know It” riff himself, a disastrous mistake. The drummer wore a tie over a T-shirt and played a solo. Skinner’s prettier, more expansive songs sounded OK, but his jittery stuff was just head-spinningly awful. Other than Skinner, none of these guys had any business being onstage.

Voice review: Mikael Wood on the Streets’ The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living
Voice review: Michaelangelo Matos on the Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free
Voice review: Sasha Frere-Jones on the Streets’ Original Pirate Material

As for Lady Sovereign, I don’t take any pleasure from saying this, but she’s done. I repped for her CMJ set last year, when she seemed like both a great little novelty and a girl who could actually rap hard, both good things. She had catchy bounce-beats, crazy throat noises, convincing quick-tongue skills, and brash gum-snap attitude for days. But somewhere around the time that Jay-Z inexplicably signed her to an American deal, she lost her sense of humor and became just another cog in Def Jam’s machine, albeit one who was now indefensibly higher than Joe Budden on the company totem pole. She stopped rapping crazy, stopped being funny, and leaked a couple of turgid, outdated club-jams that will probably never get any actual club play. Onstage last night, she was in full tantrum-huff mode, coming close to crying about her monitor: “I want to put on a good show, and this fucking piece of rustbucket fucking shit…” And it was all a bit much; she’s not going to get over on being cute anymore, even if her fake American accent is pretty funny. She didn’t have a band onstage, though she did have a completely superfluous bass player and a guy with a video camera and a fannypack who never left the front of the stage. But she still indulged in fake-rock nonsense like Skinner; “Public Warning,” which sounded revelatory at CMJ, now sounds like Mr. Bungle, all frantic chopped-up music-hall nonsense. I’m not sure exactly what happened between September and now to transform her from an exciting new face to an overhyped brat; maybe it’s just real-time blog mechanics in action, maybe she was never actually any good. But enough is enough.

Voice review: Nick Sylvester on Lady Sovereign at the Knitting Factory

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