Seriously, he couldn’t come up with a better album cover?
I was spoiled. The Williamsburg record store Sound Fix has a coffee shop attached to it, a dark and dusty room with ancient wall-tiles and a sort of old wooden smell, and it hosted in-store performances for four days straight during CMJ. I guess no one comes out to Brooklyn during CMJ, and there were about a million other things competing for people’s time, so all those shows ended up being unbelievably pleasant and intimate little things; even a hyped-up band like Beach House could play there at four in the afternoon to an audience of twenty or thirty people, and you’d have plenty of room to stretch out on a couch, which, fortuitously enough, is basically the perfect way to hear Beach House. I should’ve figured that things would’ve been different a couple of weeks later. Scritti Politti, Green Gartside’s thirty-year-old art-project, had sold out the Bowery Ballroom the night before with (amazingly) his first-ever New York show, and only an idiot would’ve showed up to his Sound Fix in-store ten minutes late and expected to find a place to sit. I’m an idiot. Hi.
Gartside is one of the heroes of Simon Reynolds‘ Rip It Up and Start Again. He started Scritti in the late-70s as a clangorous postpunk collective, pulling conceptual stunts like putting all the details of the record’s physical production (pressing costs, factory locations) on the cover of an early single. A few years later, Gartside decided that pop music was a whole lot more interesting than scrabbling noise, and he started recording sweet and expensive-sounding pop-soul-reggae songs that became actual hits and briefly turned Gartside into something like a pop star even though he was singing about French poststructuralists half the time and pretending to sing about girls but really singing about French poststructuralists the other half. That’s a truly remarkable career arc, even if Gartside pulled all this off during an era when British pop was absorbing ideas from postpunk all over the place and turning them into music that teenagers liked to buy. Gartside followed up that coup by largely disappearing from music for something like ten years and then releasing an album called Anomie & Bonhomie in 1998; I can vaguely remember an ill-advised Mos Def collaboration from my college radio days. So most of Gartside’s real achievements came way before I started paying any attention to pop music, but he had this idea that pop was actually more punk than punk. That idea is pretty much the main reason I write about music; even if Gartside wasn’t the first person to have that epiphany, he’s one of the most successful people to turn that theory into practice, if only for a little while.
Gartside has a new album called White Bread, Black Beer, and it’s a graceful and quiet little record, not the sort of grand statement he used to make. He mostly draws from 60s pop and whiteboy soul, and it probably sounds really good if you listen to it on stereo equipment a whole lot more expensive than the crap I own. It sounds like Gartside is done fighting battles, like he just wants to settle in and get old and make music about how much he loves music. There are surprising moments; one song uses all the track titles from the first Run-DMC record as lyrics, and another quotes Brand Nubian. But the record sounds to these ears like a happy shrug, like something I’ll want to return to when I really start to feel old, sort of like Kingdom Come. These days, I’m not quite ready for that level of peace in my life, and the record’s songs feel too clean and small.
At Sound Fix on Friday, though, those songs lost some of their intimate sheen and took on a sort of shambling force. Gartside and his band played acoustically, and Gartside kept apologizing for screwing everything up even though nobody minded. The coffee shop was, of course, so packed that I had to stand at the door and crane my neck over everybody. With the crowd and the lack of a stage, I got a quick little crash course in what it must feel like to go see shows if you’re less than NBA height. I couldn’t see how many people were onstage, and I generally didn’t have much of an idea what was going on. What I saw: the tops of some heads, a guy with long hair singing most of the harmonies, maybe a piano. But I saw enough of Gartside to realize that he’s not what I’d pictured. He looks something like Eddie Izzard or Mick Foley, a big barrel-chested guy with an overgrown goatee and a glowing friendliness. But his voice sounds exactly the way it does on records: a warm, airy sigh that floats above his arrangements; he couldn’t possibly sound any less like an ex-punk. The crowd was largely middle-aged and British, and they greeted him with the sort of hero’s welcome that you don’t often see at record-shop in-stores. He kept playing because they wouldn’t stop. He didn’t remember all his old songs, but one guy in his band had all his old lyrics on sheets of paper. Every once in a while, he’d request a certain song, and the guy would dig through the stack of papers and eventually prop one up on Gartside’s music stand. The band would fumble through the song and sometimes bring it to a premature end when someone lost his place. And it says something about a song like “Wood Beez,” one of the lushest pop songs Gartside ever manufactured, that it still sounds great even when the people playing it aren’t quite sure what they’re doing. Art projects don’t usually hold up so well.
Voice review: Hobey Echline on Scritti Politti’s Anomie & Bonhomie