CD Review of White Bread, Black Beer by Scritti Politti

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White Bread, Black Beer
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Nonesuch
Released: 2006
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It’s strange to think of a guy like Green Gartside, the helium-voiced mastermind behind ‘80s art poppers Scritti Politti, as an indie rocker, but that is essentially what he is these days. He makes records whenever he feels like it, and he makes whatever kinds of records he wants to make. Pretty nervy for a guy with one, count it, one hit in the States (“Perfect Way”) and five Top 40 singles in his native UK (not “Perfect Way,” which peaked at #48).

Scritti’s last effort, 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie, startled many with its full-tilt plunge into hip-hop – go download the song “Ummm” from iTunes right now – though the New York R&B scene has been Green’s breeding ground of choice since their 1985 breakthrough Cupid & Psyche ’85. For his latest, White Bread, Black Beer, the music falls more into line with his Cupid days, but the songwriting is a bit off. It’s like Robert Pollard doing a synth pop record, with fragments of ideas spliced together with little rhyme or reason dictating the proceedings. Has Green come down with a middle aged case of ADD?

Take “Dr. Abernathy,” for example. It begins as somber acoustic ballad (a letter from prison?), then abruptly jumps into a Jellyfish-style power pop groove, then slides back into the somber ballad. The idea of dramatically shifting back and forth is in itself not a bad thing, but the two segments have no flow between them whatsoever, kind of like the verse of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” versus the chorus. Following that song is “After Six,” a bouncy two-minute ditty that ends just when you think it’s about to begin. The sense of humor and wordplay are as prevalent as ever (“The ‘yes yes y’all’ was the siren’s call,” “Jesus, keep your hands where I can see”), but within these 14 tracks are about 20 songs, and nearly all of them could have used a little more work. Indeed, it makes the back-and-forth nature of Anomie & Bonhomie – it’s a pop track, it’s a rap track, it’s a ballad, it’s a rap track – seem like a lesson in meticulous planning.

Which is a shame, because when Green gets his swerve on, like he does on the raga-infused “E Eleventh Nuts” or the slide guitar-assisted “Robin Hood,” White Bread, Black Beer holds its own with Scritti’s best stuff. The majority of the album, sadly, is either confused or just too damn mellow to satiate the impeccable pop jones that Scritti fans have come to expect from Mr. Gartside. By the way, I just found out that Green’s real name is Paul Julian Strohmeyer. God bless Wikipedia.

It’s funny to think that someone who took seven years to finish a new record may have rushed it, but consider the fact that it took him 11 years to follow up 1988’s Provision with Anomie & Bonhomie, and suddenly you wonder if White Bread, Black Beer could have used a little more time. Kate Bush has clearly shown that fans will wait forever it need be, and it’s not as though Green had to get this album out right this second before he fell out of the window of opportunity. He has all the time in the world. With his next record, let’s hope that he takes as much of that time as he needs

~David Medsker