CD Reviews: The Streets, Hand Over Fist and the Mighty Underdogs (ONLINE EXCLUSIVE)

The Streets: Better than ever Mike Skinner (aka the Streets) is probably the best thing the British music scene has going for it these days. Not since the Chemical Brothers dropped "Dig Your Own Hole" in 1997 have I been able to make such a sweep...

The Streets: Better than ever

Mike Skinner (aka the Streets) is probably the best thing the British music scene has going for it these days. Not since the Chemical Brothers dropped "Dig Your Own Hole" in 1997 have I been able to make such a sweeping statement about the country's talent pool.

But first, an introduction -- courtesy of the highest musical authority in the land, Mr. Bob Dylan. What follows is how the Northland's most famous native son introduced the Streets track "Dry Your Eyes" on his XM Satellite radio show: "... Mike started making records at the age of 15, but didn't make any money from it until 2002. This is from his second album, called 'A Grand Don't Come for Free,' a concept record which told a personal story and resulted in a tidal wave of critical praise. When this song was released, in 2004, it debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. charts. This is a song where he's just standing there and he can't say a word. Everything's just gone, he's got nothin' -- absolutely nothin'...."

There's a reason the greatest lyricist of all time champions Streets emcee Mike Skinner: He's not just a rapper, he's a writer.

To be sure, there are many talented hip-hop artists in the lyric department (most of whom I personally adore), but Skinner has a way of appealing to folks who wouldn't normally pick up a rap record -- like Dylan.


"Everything is Borrowed," Skinner's fourth Streets album, continues the winning trend started with 2002's "Original Pirate Material" and its signature track, "Geezers Need Excitement."

Except, this time, Skinner gets a whole lot deeper than usual. For a guy perhaps best known for lamenting camera phones because they make it harder to do a line in front of strangers (on the 2006 track "When You Wasn't Famous"), surprisingly adept tracks like "The Way of the Dodo" on the new album will surely raise some eyebrows.

Sample lyrics: "It's not Earth that's in trouble / It's the people that live on it / No, no / Earth will be here long after we've gone the way of the dodo."

It all fits into the theme of the album: From its title to the dazzling, sans-people nature photographs by Edgar Martins that adorn its booklet, Skinner's message is pretty clear.

But it's not just the lyrical quotient that he got right on "Everything is Borrowed." The album is also a musical tour de force when it comes to live instrumentation.

Some clear standouts are "Heaven for the Weather," "The Strongest Person I Know" (which, like "Alleged Legends," features the tragically underappreciated singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt) and "The Sherry End," an undeniably catchy track that's punctuated by trumpet and saxophone fills.

So, forget what you know about Mike Skinner. I know I've taken him for granted from time to time, but "Everything is Borrowed" has forced me to re-examine the entire Streets catalog. Point blank: I'm very grateful for this album.

"Everything is Borrowed" is available now. Visit for more information.


Doomtree's Mike Mictlan and Lazerbeak are ... Hand Over Fist!

Far less cerebral than "Everything is Borrowed" is Hand Over Fist's self-titled debut, which strives for technical excellence in showmanship over all else.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. "Hand Over Fist," the brainchild of Doomtree's Mike Mictlan and Lazerbeak, is the most explosive album of 2008.

I'll admit, I'm a little biased: While I appreciate the contributions of each member of the Doomtree collective, I always found Mictlan and Lazerbeak the most intriguing.

Like P.O.S., Mictlan is a hyper-imaginative lyricist. But where his Doomtree mate only dabbles in pop-culture references, Mictlan ... well, let's just say Zubaz and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are just two of many high points for products of the '80s scattered throughout "Hand Over Fist."

And Lazerbeak, aka Aaron Mader of the now-defunct post-punk indie rock outfit the Plastic Constellations, is the most awe-inspiring Twin Cities producer outside of Ant and DJ Abilities.

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that "Hand Over Fist" is a highly entertaining listen. The album storms out of the gates with the menacing title track and the unstoppable "Suicide Jimmy Snuffa" -- and, against all odds, Mictlan and Lazerbeak keep up the pace for at least 85 percent of this, their first full album as a duo.

Other must-hear moments are the collaboration with P.O.S., "Shux"; "Head Full"; "Young Hunger"; and, my personal favorite, the bigger-than-life "Northstarrr."


These tracks reminded me of something Lazerbeak told Pulse two years ago: "I want every beat to sound like Jay-Z." While this won't mean as much after the former Def Jam CEO's post-retirement bomb "Kingdom Come," I'll be the first to say Lazerbeak's selling himself short.

Jay-Z would be lucky to be in Mictlan's shoes, rapping on top of Lazerbeak's earth-shattering beats.

The next Doomtree Blowout (crew show) will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at First Avenue in Minneapolis. See for details.

The Gift of Gab returns with the Mighty Underdogs

Annoying kids in the beginning and at the end aside, the Mighty Underdogs' OutKast-leaning "Monster" is a superhit-in-waiting. It's as instantly appealing as songs come.

Unfortunately for the Underdogs, indie rap's newest supergroup, it's how they launch their full-length debut, "Droppin' Science Fiction." That is, it's hard to keep an album afloat when it's so front-loaded.

But not all is lost. The group, which features Blackalicious' The Gift of Gab, Lateef the Truthspeaker and Headnodic (who produced and wrote all the music for the album), certainly has talent on its side.

I have no beef with the lyricists -- The Gift of Gab has long been a favorite of mine -- and, as is evident on "Science Fiction," "Aye" and "WarWalk," Headnodic has a knack for crafting radio-ready pop-rap.

Problem is, "Droppin' Science Fiction" is a little too heavy on guest contributions. "So Sad," an already unbearable track, features Julian and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley; "Gunfight" has MF Doom; "ILL Vacation," Lyrics Born; "Laughing at You," Casual; "Escape," Mr. Lif and Akrobatik; and "WarWalk," while enjoyable, is just overkill: The track contains not one or two but four guest contributions.

I have nothing against cameos on hip-hop records -- How many can you name that don't have any? -- but sometimes it just gets too distracting. This is especially true on records early in an act's career, like this one, where the groups are already struggling to develop a personality of their own.

This theory works doubly against the Underdogs, as its members have already made names for themselves in other projects.

However, guest contributions aren't always a lost cause. "UFC Remix" features cuts by the almighty DJ Shadow and, considering how adept he is at what he does, there's no possible way I could argue against that decision.

Aside from the other aforementioned highlights, though, "Droppin' Science Fiction" is too hit-or-miss to get my recommendation. Too many times -- especially on "So Sad" and "Laughing at You" -- I found Headnodic's "safe" production style too overbearing. I hit fast-forward more than I'm comfortable admitting to.

Check out for a free download of "WarWalk."

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