I Take to the Streets, David Gray; But Not Wilted Wallflowers

The Oct. 30 murder of Run-D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay has predictably inspired a plethora of wheezy editorials on the cultural significance of hip-hop’s violent streak. But for me, the news, sad as it was, triggered some fond memories. Seeing Run-D.M.C. in the headlines brought me back to my high-school days, when Jay and his two black-hatted partners in rhyme were putting out their best work-tracks like “Peter Piper” and “My Adidas”-and I was eating it up.

My high school, in Cambridge, Mass., had its own radio station, WRLS, and I worked there during my sophomore year, 1985-86.

Back then, my fellow D.J.’s musical tastes were pretty clear: The black kids liked hip-hop and the white kids liked heavy metal. Personally, I preferred the Beatles, but when forced to choose between those two genres, I always threw my lot in with the hip-hop lovers. The best rappers of the mid-80′s-Run-D.M.C. being tops among them, closely followed by L.L. Cool J-had an audaciousness and a vitality that couldn’t be matched by the likes of Mötley Crüe or even Metallica. In fact, I felt a little embarrassed that most of the other representatives of my race worshipped music that sounded so stodgy to me.

Later on, groups like Public Enemy, De La Soul, N.W.A and A Tribe Called Quest further deepened my appreciation of hip-hop. But in the mid-90′s, something happened. To my ear, hip-hop became as stodgy as the metal that bored me back in the 80′s.

Of course, there have been exceptions: the Roots, OutKast, Eminem, Missy Elliott. Yet, overall, the more successful the music has become, the more it’s lost the life force that made it exciting.

Which makes Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic), the debut album by the Streets, all the more noteworthy. Mike Skinner, the Streets’ sole full-time member, is a white 22-year-old from Birmingham, England. He’s a product of one of the U.K.’s many mystifying dance subgenres, two-step garage. (Garage is an offshoot of house music; beyond that I dare not go.)

Despite Mr. Skinner’s pedigree, however, Original Pirate Material isn’t a dance record. It’s a hip-hop record, and one that’s refreshingly unlike any I’ve heard.

For starters, when Mr. Skinner raps, he makes no attempt to Americanize the telltale diphthongs and glottal stops of his Midlands accent. He also steers clear of most traditional hip-hop lingo; he doesn’t represent and he isn’t keepin’ it real . Instead, he describes “the day in the life of a geezer” and tosses off such lines as “My underground train runs from Mile End to Ealing / From Brixton to Boundsgreen.”

In Mr. Skinner’s world, Birmingham doubletalk is just as valid a rap vehicle as the slang of Compton or the South Bronx-and for the people he lives with, it’s far more relevant. “Around ‘ere we say ‘birds,’ not ‘bitches,’” he proclaims in the bouncy, reggae-tinged “Let’s Push Things Forward.”

You could argue that Mr. Skinner is just trading one kind of linguistic obscurity for another, and you’d be right. Case in point: I only recently discovered that “chasing brown,” a pastime mentioned in “Has It Come to This?”, is a reference to taking heroin.

The fact is that the unusual verbiage would be little more than a novelty without compelling stories. Fortunately, Mr. Skinner’s got plenty of those. Among the highlights: a hilarious confrontation between a lager lout and a know-it-all pothead in “The Irony of It All,” a wistful remembrance of the British rave scene in “Weak Become Heroes,” and the gloomy tale of a love affair capsized by the narrator’s selfishness in “It’s Too Late.”

Mr. Skinner’s delivery is elastic in the extreme; he floats over the music, managing to sound laid-back even when his rhythms are pushing against it. The beats are spare and intriguingly off-kilter, and the tracks are loaded with clever musical touches like the plinky oud sample found on “Too Much Brandy.” It all adds up to the most thrilling development hip-hop’s seen in quite some time.

Another Brit whose foray into the dance world has produced excellent results is the singer and songwriter David Gray. By injecting a touch of drum-and-bass into his Van Morrison–esque folk-rock songs, Mr. Gray became a multiplatinum star with his fourth album, 1999′s White Ladder . The just-released follow-up, A New Day at Midnight (RCA/ATO), continues in the same vein, layering the chatter of drum machines and samples underneath Mr. Gray’s rich, impassioned voice.

With its swirling guitars and bold minor-to-major chord progression, the opening track, “Dead in the Water,” boasts a drama worthy of Radiohead. But most of what follows is subdued by comparison. In the early stages of his career, Mr. Gray was often guilty of overemoting. These days, he’s making a concerted effort to cut down on his big moments. Songs like “Last Boat to America” and “The Other Side” don’t tug on your sleeve for attention, but subtly wriggle their way into your memory.

Subtlety’s a fine thing in music, and Mr. Gray applies it well. Still, A New Day at Midnight ‘s best track is its most outlandish. An exuberant love song, “Caroline” begins with the blips and honks of an analog synthesizer merrily tripping over a cheesy yet urgent programmed beat. The forceful strumming of an acoustic guitar enters the mix, followed by a jerky, staggering bassline.

Mr. Gray sings that the effort to win the title subject’s affections is “the final war / A steel-eyed dinosaur,” then lets out a wild whoop, clearing the way for an eye-popping pedal-steel solo by B.J. Cole. Nothing works out as expected, yet it sounds completely right. More like this next time, please.

Our final subject this week is Red Letter Days (Interscope), the new CD by the Wallflowers. As most readers will probably be aware, the Wallflowers are led by Jakob Dylan, whose father has something of a reputation in the industry.

The pressures of being the performing progeny of a musical icon must be crippling, but Mr. Dylan has responded to them admirably. His band’s last two albums, Bringing Down the Horse and Breach , were intelligent and tuneful, and they had heart. It seemed that Mr. Dylan was readying himself to carry the banner of American rock in the great tradition of Springsteen, Petty and, of course, his dad.

Red Letter Days won’t hurt his chances of attaining such hallowed status. But it won’t help them, either. The album’s nicely performed and produced, but it’s low on personality.

A few tracks do stand out; the tender, piano-led “Closer to You” and the vaguely Latin “Too Late to Quit” are particularly striking. But the rest is undone by a creepy air of anonymity. I like the Wallflowers and I’d like to like this disc, but the lack of any song as strong as Mr. Dylan’s previous hits “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache” is glaring, and I find my mind wandering way too much every time I put it on.

When the sharpest adjectives you can find to describe a piece of music are “solid” and “respectable,” you know something’s gone, as Mike Skinner might say, all pear-shaped.