White Bread Black Beer – Scritti Politti

Label: Rough Trade

Contrary to popular opinion Green Gartside was born in Wales not Algeria and studied not at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, but at Leeds Polytechnic at a time that happily coincided with the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy tour in 1977. His first EP for Rough Trade, “Skank Bloc Bologna” in 1978 didn’t define the roles of contradiction and overdetermination in western society as is commonly believed, nor did it compound the tasks of Ideological State Apparatuses in the British mainstream at that time.  It came in, it reggaed about a bit, it confused us and fell apart. Quite literally. The record’s cover-art listed its manufacturing sources, its costs, its distribution channels and lay bare its own devices. Even in the absence of a predictable form and shape, Scritti Politti were already deconstructing; a course of action they pursued for years right up until the point that we all stopped paying attention.

For all those who don’t know and those that do know, Scritti Politti were the band that gave us ‘Wood Beeze’, ‘The Word Girl’, ‘Perfect Way’, ‘Oh Patti’, ‘The Sweetest Girl’ and yes, even tracks like ’Philosophy Now’. They were a puzzle inside an enigma wrapped in a copy of Gramsci’s L’Unità and traded in avante-garde R’n’B that was as sharp as a razor, as complex as Pi, as sweet as a sugar-mouse and just as likely to melt in the rain. We loved the falsetto, we loved the obliqueness, we loved the crashing sliced-beats, the honey-dew keys, the bangs, the booms, the crashes, the snap of the guitar, the slap of the bass, the rich and infinite harmonies and we almost loved ‘Provision’. One line of investigation leads you to arrive at ‘perfect pop’, whilst another blows cold and goes nowhere in an instant. Deeply surface bubble-gum on the one hand, deeply subversive on the other. Not even the boy-meets-girl songs were ever that simple; boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl in the casual interplay between signified and signifier, dissolved in the ether of semiotics and in the long, tender sighs that accompanied them.

And so we arrive at ‘White Bread Black Beer’, an album that sees the irrepressible Green Gartside shedding numerous layers of eccentricity, retracing the paths of his digressions and arriving, against all odds, at somekind of personal centre. His first album in seven years and his first in 20 for Rough Trade, the album sees Gartside on his own, recording largely in his own back room and feeling never more so at home in his matrix of metaphors and misdemeanours. The sheen of those early recordings and the slickness of the performances have may have vanished but there’s an intensity and emotional range that defies all previous expectations of his work. Lo-fi, gentle and rarely venturing beyond a whisper, it’s as if the mixing engineer crept into the studio in the middle of the night, turned everything down but the vocal channels, and left only the muffled whirr of the keys and bass-tones by which to navigate. Yes the voice still swoons, yes there’s still the dub-reggae elements, the loops, the snatch and grab edits, the sudden death changes of direction, the tempo switches, and the skewed elliptical syntax, but it’s an infinitely more private affair. ‘The Boom Boom Bap’, ‘No Fine Lines’ and ‘Snow In The Sun’ couldn’t have provided a starker contrast to the crashing hi-fidelity intros of previous albums than if Mr Gartside had handed you a feather-pillow, a baby’s bottom and a blanket of fresh snow. There’s also a greater sense of place than on previous albums, with tracks like ‘Mrs Hughes’ and ‘Dr. Abernathy’ literally prowling the sets of quintessentially English dramas built already by the likes of Andy Partridge, Cider With Rosie and British Homestores.

It’s a spring thing, a blossoming thing, a journey through the valleys and across the peaks of the artist’s own domestic landscape as he stops inverting the violent hierarchies of popular culture and comes to terms with more practical issues like the next glass of beer or the next loaf of bread. Sounds still rub and collide as frequently his syntax shifts, but with the dispersal of the clouds that masked his vision, and the recession of expectations comes a more satisfying sense of self. It’s both a road to no regret and a record of his undoing. And it’s all very, very beautifully unravelled.

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Release: Scritti Politti - White Bread Black Beer
Review by:
Released: 25 May 2006