The Word on the Streets
Is the new album from English rapper Mike Skinner any good?
The Streets The Hardest Way To Make an Easy Living
When a pop star starts making records about how hard it is to be a pop star, it's usually a sign of creeping decadence and creative stagnation. But Mike Skinner, the Birmingham, England, rapper who records under the moniker the Streets, has made a great album about fame and its discontents. Skinner's third CD, just released in the U.K. (it's out in the United States on April 21), turns the stock scenes of rock-star excess—coke snorting, hotel-room trashing, groupie shagging—into tragicomic farce, in part by owning up to the tawdry banality of it all. "The iron has been on in my house for four fucking weeks," he cries in " Pranging Out," a song about cocaine-fueled paranoia. "These headaches are getting unbearably nasty … / The rock 'n' roll cliché walks in and then smacks me."
Skinner is a specialist in self-deprecation and in brisk, punch-line-punctuated narratives. On his previous albums, Original Pirate Material (2002) and the amazing A Grand Don't Come for Free (2004), he set his songs in grimy chip-shops and nightclubs. The atmosphere has become decidedly more rarified—once he lusted after local girls at the disco; now he details an affair with an unnamed MTV starlet. But Skinner remains a chronicler of the small and the sordid: The Hardest Way is a deeply demythologizing glimpse of pop stardom. The title track depicts the workaday grind of record promotion, detailing how Skinner burns through his promotional budget ("Got two-fifty grand in the budget to go/ Subtract five for a good video/ Fifteen for a dud video"). Even "When You Wasn't Famous," the song about the starlet, is deflating, with an ennui-tinged chorus ("When you are a famous boy, it gets really easy to get girls/ It's all so easy, you get a bit spoilt/ So when you try to pull a girl/ Who is also famous too/ It feels just like when you wasn't famous") and Skinner's confession that the girl never really liked him much anyway: "I know that I got a bit close to you/ And that you found it fucking boring."
As usual, Skinner delivers his rhymes in a thick Midlands deadpan—not the most compelling rapper's voice but an effective comic instrument. He produces his own records, and on The Hardest Way To Make an Easy Living, the music takes a slightly sour turn, with lots of minor-key synth arpeggios (a bit reminiscent of Eminem's recent records) and an unimaginative use of the clattery beats that predominate U.K. hip-hop. But Skinner's songs entrance anyway. He's a wit and an aphorist ("Two great European narcotics: alcohol and Christianity. I know which one I prefer"), and he can turn on the pathos. "Never Went to Church"is a surprisingly melodic elegy for his late father that ends with lines typical of Skinner's knack for tightly rhymed everyday epiphanies: "Everytime I interrupt someone like you used to/ When I do something like you, you'll be on my mind all through/ Cos' I forgot you left me behind to remind me of you." But Skinner spends most of his time pondering dilemmas peculiar to the rich, famous, and drug-addled. "See, the thing that's got it all fucked-up now is camera phones," he cries at one point. "How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers when I know they've all got cameras?"
Eagles of Death Metal Death by Sexy
The Eagles of Death Metal are a one-joke band. Luckily, it's a good joke. Co-founded in 2004 by Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme, the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, the Eagles send up (and celebrate) the richly sleazy brand of '70s guitar music that might be called scuzz rock. The musical reference points are garage and glam and ZZ Top; the spiritual touchstones include biker bars, drooping walrusine mustaches, and statutory rape. On their latest (second) album, the Eagles capture the sound, and evoke the seediness, with spooky precision. The sludgy guitar riffs and caterwauling falsetto vocals are period perfect, and their ear for macho-man lyrical absurdities are dead-on. In "Eagles Goth," Hughes sings:
It should be clear, I'm a cold hard killer
With sophistication and a touch of high class
A heartbreaker bringing death by sexy
A ladykiller, momma, in a rock 'n' roll band
Though I am a black hearted devil, honey
I must admit you're really under my skin
The Eagles' act is a bit risky. Comedians have been playing "rawk" clichés for yuks since at least 1983 (when This Is Spinal Tap came out), and the line between affectionate spoof and Saturday Night Live routine gone wrong is perilously thin. (Cf. the Darkness, England's lamentable hair metal revivalists.) It helps a lot that the Eagles—Hughes, Homme, and a rotating cast of pals, including joke-rocker supreme Jack Black—are fine musicians and songwriters; plenty of earnest power-poppers would pay good money for the melodies that the Eagles audibly toss off. (Death by Sexy was reportedly written and recorded in just eight days.) But the real triumph is one of taste: They've got great taste in tasteless music. It's hard to go wrong with a great big slab of blues-boogie like "I Want You So Hard (Boy's Bad News)." This is music worth reviving, an antidote to the aching seriousness of emo and post-grunge, and a reminder that rock 'n' roll can be terrific dance music. The Eagles might do well to quit while they're ahead—by album No. 3 this shtick may no longer have legs. For now, though, the band offers something unique: comedy you can shake your booty to.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Audio excerpts from The Hardest Way To Make an Easy Living © 2006 Vice Records and Death by Sexy© 2006 Downtown. All rights reserved.