[2 November 2009]
I’m sorry, I know England loves this guy, but something about him rings false. The hype you heard about Jamie T’s debut album (and his breakout single “Sheila”) was built around buzzwords ‘wit’, ‘larrikin’, ‘South London’; in fact, he was more of a teenager with an acoustic guitar who fell firmly in the shadow of Mike Skinner. It was 2007, and nobody, seems, could get enough of being told ‘how it is’, preferably in as loutish an accent as humanly possible. Thankfully we’ve moved on since then. Grime has retreated from a moment in the spotlight into something purer, more difficult to approach. Lady Sovereign has flamed out into an embarrassment of dance-pop. Lily Allen has turned from a high school dropout with a MySpace account to a paparazzi-baiting pop star (with, surprisingly, the songs to match).
Some of these artists have grown and found an unexpected longevity. Even two years after the Streets lost cultural relevance, listening to Skinner’s keen-eyed observations about human behaviour is as pleasurable as it ever was. But the majority of England’s hooligan-pop ranks have faded away.
Jamie T (Jamie Treay in real life) is battling against the tide on his sophomore album. From the opening strains of “368”, he spits and hollers with a fiercely working class aesthetic. His stories are full of random detail, but they go along familiar themes: dissolving relationships, drunken adolescent behaviour, dead-end jobs, bullying. Stepping up from his debut, Panic Prevention’s mostly acoustic guitar accompaniments, Treay and his producer Ben Bones have crafted a more complete sound here. It’s often reminiscent of classic indie-pop, with upbeat guitars and straightforward 4/4 rhythms. There are some other neat flourishes, which are generally underutilised. “Spider’s Web” opens with a hiccup-like shout that it promptly ignores in favour of chiming U2 guitars; “Chaka Demus” chugs along on video-game synths until it degenerates into ‘70s-style soft-pop. Like any respectable backpack hip-hopper, Treay has a solid ear for samples, and throws in a few to keep familiarity strong (Joan Baez at the beginning of “Earth, Wind and Fire” is a highlight).
It’s the slower, acoustic ballads that may be Kings & Queens’ biggest surprise, and to which listeners may respond most strongly, one way or the other. The trouble is, Treay’s no pop singer; he retreats into a mumble, slurring his words. And though his stories have something of Craig Finn’s lost-youth narrative, he fails to ignite a similar feeling of identification in the listener. “I was under investigation on suspicion doing her wrong”, he mutters on “Emily’s Heart”, and it’s affecting enough; but “Jilly Armeen”, with its tuneless whistle, is more concerned with tripping wordplay than true feeling.
True, Treay’s got an ear for melody, but that doesn’t make him the saviour of songwriting the British press has occasionally claimed him to be. He received a Mercury Prize nomination for his debut in 2007; odds are he’s on track for another this year. Regardless of what you think of the validity of that award, the critical community in England seem to be enamoured with something in the particular combination of idiot and savant that, perhaps, we just don’t get. But what happened after that rash of undereducated Britons? It was Bishop Allen, Chester French, and Vampire Weekend. Any backlash against hyper-education notwithstanding, I don’t mind that paradigm shift. We did learn something at college, I hope.