Originally formed in London by way of Leeds as a post-art school trio with drummer Tom Morley and bassist Nial Jinks, the high-mindedly political and conceptual Scritti Politti underwent a number of drastic developmental changes on its way to becoming, ultimately, a slick vehicle for Welsh-born singer and guitarist Green Gartside. By the time Scritti Politti released its long-awaited first album in 1982, Green had pulled the band from its early experiments (on the 4 ‘A’ Sides EP and the Peel session released as Works in Progress) through a phase of alluring synth-pop and into a souled-out revamp of early T. Rex, minus Bolan’s unique sword-and-sorcery outlook. (Early contains both of those EPs as well as the single that preceded them and the one that followed them, an alluring dubwise 1981 recording of “The ‘Sweetest Girl’,” with keyboards by Robert Wyatt. Green’s light, reedy voice is clearly the band’s main asset at this point; the thin, scrabbly guitar rock, which slightly resembles the beginning sound of XTC without the frantic energy, is still under development.)
Songs to Remember is an unassumingly warm and charming set, with boppy beats, quirky tunes and abundant catchy goodwill. While Green’s obvious songwriting mastery and affecting voice make every song appealing, a few — “Asylums in Jerusalem,” “Faithless” and “The Sweetest Girl” — are absolutely wonderful.
Subsequently shedding the pretense of a band, Green moved himself to New York, where he turned to high-sheen soul music as his life’s work. With venerable producer Arif Mardin, Material drummer Fred Maher and other heavyweights, the entirety of Green’s output for the following two years was a 1984 12-inch, which nonetheless established him as a brilliant (if unprolific) pop craftsman. “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” and “Absolute” are stunning, traditional musical values given up-to-date modern stylings.
Green consolidated his triumph by including both songs on Cupid & Psyche 85, only the second Scritti Politti album in six years. Recorded and produced in the main with Maher and keyboardist David Gamson but featuring numerous other musicians, the painstakingly well-crafted record is unfailingly pleasant. Nonetheless, only “The Word Girl” approaches the engaging excellence of the two singles.
Three years later, Gartside, Gamson and Maher finished Provision, another meticulous studio exercise that takes a lighthanded approach to bouncy pop soul. Loads of backing singers do their best not to upstage Gartside’s wispy voice, but the cushiony cloak of suavely boring, repetitive material is all it takes to thwart his reedy efforts. In a brief break from the album’s numbing reliance on electronic technology, Miles Davis drops in to contribute a thin-sounding trumpet solo to “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry for Loverboy).” The CD adds two extra tracks.
Rising out of stylistic stasis on Anomie & Bonhomie, Green turns to live instruments and mixes some grit in with the cream. He credibly shoulders hip-hop by getting out of the way (Mos Def and others do the rapping, on the winning “Tinseltown to the Boogiedown,” “Die Alone,” “Smith ‘n’ Slappy” and “Prince Among Men”), reclaims his pop authority (as on “Umm” and the reggae-inflected “Mystic Handyman”) and roughs the arrangements into sterner stuff that helpfully balances the sweet coolness of his singing. And he addresses that consistency as well: he sings the flat-out tuneful rocker “Here Comes July” with gobs more aggro and enthusiasm than usual, but still keeps it sweet as summer. Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Wendy Melvoin are among the players on this wonderful, diverse collection.