Pirates and predators

Maddy Costa enjoys the dirty poetry of a garage geezer

The Streets Original Pirate Material (Locked On/679)

Champagne, cocaine, smart cars and guns? Forget it. Original Pirate Material finds UK garage driving an SR Nova, grabbing a kebab, guzzling cheap beer, then settling down with a "few herbs and a bit of Benson". The only bling-bling noise you can hear is the sound of coppers clinking in Mike Skinner's pocket.

Skinner, the Birmingham-raised, Brixton-based 22-year-old behind the Streets, sets out his stall on Let's Push Things Forward, the third track of his thrilling debut album. "This ain't your archetypal street sound," he announces, in an idiosyncratic accent melding south-London consonants and stubbornly Midlands vowels. "This ain't your typical garage joint." No kidding. As zapping space-invader noises dance around the skankiest of basslines and blurts of trumpet, Skinner's music couldn't be further removed from the soulful sounds that ruled UK garage in 2000, nor from So Solid Crew's monotonous raps, the movement's representatives in 2001.

Not that Skinner is an outstanding musician. For all his talk of PlayStations and N64s, his rudimentary beats call to mind the primitive appearance of Atari games. The hammered rhythms, muted strings and dinky piano impress most when they support Skinner's scattershot vocals, and the album is weakest when the music is in the foreground. Who Got the Funk? essentially consists of a flatulent bassline and a funk riff that you could recreate at home by shaking a thin sheet of metal; it sounds like the skeleton of a Fatboy Slim track.

Skinner's real skill, as he immodestly notes on Who Got the Funk?, is "unique lyrics" about the "life of a geezer": richly detailed stories of getting drunk, avoiding fights, taking pills, then coming home to shabby suburban front rooms. There's dirty poetry in his description of his mind on E: "The world stands still as my brain sloshes round, the washing-up bowl in my crown." Skinner relishes his accent and English slang: the way he says "got ma-noo-vors to make" is hilarious, as is his unexpected use of the phrase "By Jove".

It's such surprises that make Original Pirate Material so compelling. Geezers Need Excitement and Too Much Brandy are lairy accounts of nights drenched in alcohol, and yet both are underpinned by an endearing, boyish sagacity. More engagingly still, Skinner never hides his vulnerability. It's Too Late is Mills & Boon for rudeboys: rain tumbles, strings pine, and Skinner weeps into his beer after getting dumped. He can't resist a joke though: "We first met through a shared view - she loved me and I did too."

The rowdy tracks have an infectious energy, but it's the more philosophical Weak Become Heroes and Stay Positive that show Skinner at his best. The former is an absorbing reflection on rave culture, while Stay Positive is a devastating dissection of a self-absorbed society set to a glowering bassline and heart-snagging piano motif. "Stop dreaming, people who say that are blaspheming," Skinner snarls. But when those dreams are unfulfilled, he acknowledges, the feeling of isolation can be unbearable and the attraction of heroin irresistible.

This resonant maturity suggests that Skinner can only improve with time. For now he's still making mistakes - his decision to swap All Got Our Runnins, the fantastic ninth track that appeared on promotional copies of the album, with the scrappy Don't Mug Yourself being the most criminal. Skinner must be the only person who would prefer to hear himself messing about with his mates than singing the priceless closing insult from All Got Our Runnins: "What the fuck is this, you div?" But then the very appeal of Original Pirate Material lies in its maker's bumptious self-assurance.


Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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