Browsers, Browsers, The Streets

And yet another week passes. This week has been characterised by lots of new about browsers, from Chrome to Safari to Internet Explorer. Apple published information on the third revision of the iPhone operating system, IBM wants to buy Sun, and GNOME released a new version. This week’s My Take is about The Streets.

Week in Review

The browser was the centre of attention this past week. Google released the Chrome 2.0 beta, and also opened the beta update channel for those interested in being on the bleeding edge of Chrome’s development. Jordan wrote about how to get Chrome’s limited Linux version running. Microsoft also released a new browser, with Internet Explorer 8 finally reaching gold status. Just yesterday we reported on Google’s JavaScript experiments.

Browsers were also the centre of attention due to CanSecWest’s PWN2OWN competition, which saw Apple’s Safari on the Mac as the first to topple over, followed by IE and Firefox on Windows. The only one left standing was Google’s Chrome, and according to contest winner Charlie Miller this is due to the browser’s sandboxing feature. Miller also explained why he thinks Mac OS X is easier to exploit than Windows Vista/7.

Apple also saw positive news this week with the announcement of version 3.0 of the iPhone operating system, which delivers such desired features as MMS messaging, cut/copy/paste, tethering, and push notifications (among many other things). It will be released somewhere during the summer.

In the middle of the week it became known that IBM is in acquisition talks with Sun Microsystems. The latter has been in financial troubles for a while now, and is actively seeking for a buyer to save the company. What such a deal would mean for the various open source projects of both companies remains to be seen.

The GNOME project released a new version of their desktop environment this week, version 2.26. It comes with several small features, but nothing revolutionary.

My Take: The Streets

In 2002, an unlikely artist appeared on the UK podium: Mike Skinner, better known as The Streets, a suburban “geezer”. His lyricist skills were mind blowing, a storyteller like you rarely see in music these days. His music was a blend between UK garage and a more club-like sound, and mixed together with his stories full of sadness and British wit, it created an experience that proved to be quite popular among both the audience and critics. “Original Pirate Material” became a massive success both critically and popularly. “Let’s Push Things Forward” probably became the defining single, but personally I prefer “Weak Become Heroes” and especially “Stay Positive“.

Usually, after a successful debut album, artists struggle with their second one, torn between their own desire to take their art to the next level, and the desire of their fans to produce the exact same album again (see Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie). The Streets had no such problem, and surprised everyone with “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”, an album so unique both musically and lyrically I still see it as one of my personal best albums ever made.

What makes A Grand Don’t Come For Free so unique is that it’s one long story, from the first to the last song. There are several story archs that span the entire album, a few story archs that cover only a few songs, and a few archs that are song-specific. It’s both clever and daring, since it means the album barely has any marketable singles. Still, it became a massive success, and critics were once again handing out the positive reviews like candy during Halloween. The story of the album has both a sad and a happy ending, and the last song details both of them. I specifically want to mention “Blinded By The Lights”, a song that painfully accurately conveys the feeling of, well, you know (except for the pills part, I stick to the alcohol drug only).

His third album, “The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living”, dealt with the issues of being famous, and no longer dealt with the problems of normal, every day people from the British working-class that his previous albums alluded to. Many of his fans saw this as treason, but I personally believe this was a very brave and honest thing to do: where other hip hop-like artists either glorify fame and money, or just lie about still caring for “the streets” and being poor, Skinner just made an album about things that bothered him, and showed the dark sides of being famous. It also contained the impressive “Never Went To Church”, a tribute to his late father. “Two great European narcotics… Alcohol and Christianity. I know which one I prefer.”

I went to a The Streets concert in the cosy confines of Paradiso a few years ago, and when Skinner performed this song, many people in the audience were unable to keep their eyes dry. I saw grown men and women crying, and I, too, had troubles keeping my eyes from watering up.

The beauty of Skinner’s music is the apparent simplicity and down-to-earthness of his lyrics, while still being extremely clever in the end, full of twists and British wit. Some songs are inherently sad, but most of them are fun and cheery, leaving you with a big grin on your face. I love how he is able to sing about very delicate and difficult issues in a way that other artists cannot: a way that doesn’t require 50 forum pages of Internet discussion before you understand what is going on. A refreshing change from most of the other pretentious nonsense I listen to.

Last year September, he released his fourth album “Everything Is Borrowed”. Musically, the album is a departure from previous material. Instead of being mostly electronic, the album contains more “real” instruments than synthesizer tricks. Violins, pianos, organs – you name it, it’s in there. This gives the album a more authentic sound, but will also likely alienate some of his fans.

Moving away from personal stories (not completely, though), the album deals with grander issues like religion, suicide, and ecology, but all in the trademark Skinner way. In “Heaven For The Weather”, the devil appears to him and asks him if he wants to go “down or up”, he can’t make up his mind – “I want to go to heaven for the weather, but to hell for the company”.

The album is filled with parables, such as the beautiful “Flip Of A Coin”, which reminds me of Cash’ “A Boy Named Sue”. A father has told his son to always use a coin to make important decisions, leading the son’s life to take directions it otherwise would’ve never taken. When the son confronts his father about the coin, the father explains that he wanted his son to go places and experience things his father had been afraid of.

In “The Way Of The Dodo”, Skinner takes the unpopular approach to the recent obsession with ecology, stating that “It’s not that I don’t care, just that I’m way too caught up with breathing air to grieve for the trees and air or how breathable air is”. “Alleged Legends” is probably the successor to Never Went To Church, and deals with the contradictions in religion. “Given I can’t control what I truly believe, can I be forgiven for only believing who I see?”

The real gem is probably the last song, “The Escapist”. In a manner similar to one of my favourite Fiona Apple songs (Waltz), it’s about Skinner taking a few steps back to see everything for what it really is. “I’m not full of fear, ’cause I’m not really here, I’m nowhere near”, Skinner sings. The low-budget video they shot for The Escapist is also strikingly beautiful in its simplicity.

It’s sad to realise that there’s only one more The Streets album to come after which Skinner will call it a day. The Streets is definitely recommended listening, if only to prove that hip hop can be about so much more than just guns and women.


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