Anomie & Bonhomie
More than a decade after Provision, the soulful Welshman Green Gartside (who is Scritti Politti) returns with a disc as up-to-date as his earlier work. While the band's fourth disc isn't as radical as the material post-punker Gartside crafted in the '80s, it's easily as contemporary, highly crafted, and, as usual, effortless.
Sparked by hip-hop, trip-hop, and a smidgen of electronica, Anomie & Bonhomie (which roughly translates to "despair & delight" or, perhaps more accurately, "boredom & goodwill"), is layered, modern, and paradoxical. And while it may not contain hits such as "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" or "The Word Girl," from the great Cupid & Psyche 85, it may cut a swath across even more markets. The album, produced in 1997 and 1998 by former band member David Gamson, was released in England last year; whether it will generate radio play in the U.S. is open to question. Even when it's melodically accessible, the way Gartside scrambles genres makes it far from easy listening.
Tracks such as "Prince Among Men," in which Gartside alternates his breathy, Beatlesque voice with the street-savvy articulation of Mos Def, and "Tinseltown to the Boogiedown" attest to how many modern sounds Gartside assimilated while "resting" in his native Wales near his parents' home. The lyrics are, as usual, opaque, allusive, and provocative. Whether it's the dreamy narrative of "Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder" or the bruised, Bee Gees-styled "First Goodbye," Gartside evokes the pastorale. It's an odd combination: highly urban stylings meant to couch imagery simultaneously austere and wistful. Other tunes, such as the two featuring bassist/contralto specialist Me'shell Ndegeocello, feel far more contemporary, setting her urgent stylings against Gartside's fervent swoons. "Die Alone" is particularly eerie, laying Ndegeocello's velvety exhortations against the guitars of Allen Cato and Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy & Lisa).
If the music is complex, the topics are obscure, making a perfect fit. "Mystic Handyman" seems like a love song from a man to a woman, but it's also light reggae, replete with coos, Gartside's wispy vocals, and harmonies that evoke such West Coast ancestors as the Beach Boys (of course) and the Association. What makes it mystic is elusive. And "Prince Among Men," which begins with stereo panning, detours through hip-hop and hard rock guitar, its "bells" made distant by way of computers. As the Arif Mardin-produced Cupid & Psyche 85 was to the '80s, Anomie & Bonhomie is to the new decade: body rock that functions as brain food. So rare. So satisfying. -- Carlo Wolff