Poor old Jamie T. He must be cursing the Mercury Prize success of Speech Debelle, for when this – his second album – gets its inevitable nomination nod in 2010 the chances of a second London-influenced, urban record in a row winning will surely be greatly reduced. Although the same would have been true if a straight ahead indie guitar, punk or hip-hop artist had walked away with the prize. If you thought T’s first record Panic Prevention covered more than its fair share of bases, get ready for Kings & Queens to make your head spin.
For those who found the idea of Jamie T deeply unappealing before, the chances are that – on paper – this will hardly have you stampeding to your local record store, virtual or otherwise. His voice still sounds like Mickey from Eastenders throughout (accept when he sounds like Pete Doherty on the more acoustic tracks) and he still sings about a landscape so parochial that you fear his songs would need a passport to leave South London. What none of this prepares you for is a record that combines maturity with youthful glee, lairiness with touching emotion and the spirit of rebellion with, well, more spirit of rebellion.
I first listened to this record driving in and out of London for a few days straight. There couldn’t have been a more suited soundtrack. Heading into the East End you can almost taste the world of which Jamie T writes, a world that hasn’t been evoked so vividly since Mike Skinner first appeared on the scene. Like Original Pirate Material, Kings & Queens is not a particularly pretty album – daytime radio would be hard pressed to find much it could play here – yet you cannot help but become drawn into his tales of lightweight pricks stuck in Hampton Wick. -Sticks -n’ Stones’ refrain of ‘when there’s no-one left to fight, boys like us don’t shine so bright’ from a young man in a hoodie might sound like the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare but in truth it has more sadness to it than aggression. Elsewhere, T and his songwriting / musical / production partner Ben Bones are certainly happy to celebrate the less cerebral side of life, especially on the belting opener -368′ (the exact amount of millilitres of beer it takes to make the world seem pleasantly fuzzy).
Yet fittingly for a record that T and Bones took several aborted attempts at making, there is much here that is thoughtful and built to last. The lyrics are superb, demonstrating a story tellers eye for detail that recalls not only Skinner at his best but Alex Turner and obvious influence Billy Bragg. Musically it’s all over the shop but never fails to sound coherent. The spirit of Joe Strummer hangs heavy, not only on the straightforward Clash thrash of -British Intelligence’ but throughout his excursions into reggae, hip-hop and folk music (frequently all on one song, as with the splendid ‘Spider’s Web’). By attempting live up to such weighty comparisons and distill the essence of a city such as London in to on record, young Jamie Treays has set himself some pretty high targets. The astonishing thing is that he has managed to hit them and then some.