Plan B, ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’ – First Listen

Pleasantly surprising as his pop-soul scrubbing up has been, I never really understood why Plan B‘s first, East End Eminem, incarnation was a sticking point for so many.

Sure, it’s po-faced, big-issue, street-rage shtick was about as subtle as a brick screaming “HELLO! I’M A BRICK!”, but he was a feisty little number, and some of the songs were pretty good.

What?! They were. Anyway, although his debut ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’ might not have set the world on fire critically speaking, it did get to a perfectly respectable No 30 in the albums chart. Ben Drew’s socially conscious bad boy persona also landed him a couple of film roles; 2008’s Adulthood and this year’s Harry Brown alongside original geezer Michael Caine.

The thespian mindset seems to have stuck with Drew, whose second album is a concept one of sorts. Ben ‘plays’ the titular Strickland Banks, a suited-and-booted ’60s obsessed soul singer, who after finding success with the album’s first few tracks, ends up going daaaaaaah you slag (note to non-UK readers: ‘going to prison’) for a Crime He Did Not Commit. The smooth and souly sounds that cushion this story are nothing at all, mind you, to do with the huge success of Winehouse, Ronson et al. Nothing.

“This is a film man. It’s all entertainment. It’s allowing me to have some fun,” Ben asserts. But will it be fun for us? Let’s have a look-see.

Love Goes Down
Smoother than silky nighties, smoother than satin sheets, smoother than a box of Minstrels bought at a motorway service station, Ben croons “I pulled you close baby/Laid you down on the bed” over spare drums, subtly nudging bass and gradually swelling strings. His luscious falsetto is the Galaxy chocolate of vocals. It has virtually no real cocoa content or nutritional value, it tastes nothing like real chocolate, but it doesn’t really matter, because it tastes awesome in its own schmaltzy kind of way. At moments, this is more unintentionally Trapped In The Closet than Marvin Gaye, but it’s undeniably slick.

Writing’s On The Wall
Faster-paced, husky-voiced and studded with cheeky horns, this slow-dance tale of a relationship on the wane revels in a real glossy Duffyish chorus. You have to admire the way he’s bravely swapped one style that flirts madly with inauthenticity (angry white-boy rap) for another (new Mini retro pop soul). It’s like he’s deliberately trying to infuriate people.

Stay Too Long
By this point, all the Commitments-style ersatz fun is just on the verge of becoming too much when Ben wisely chooses to leaven the soul sugar with, oh yes – some angry rap. The balance of his two sides is weirdly perfect; on their own either the ranter or the crooner can soon grate, but here, the intersection makes both work in synergy. HE’S LIKE THE FOREST GATE JEKYLL AND HYDE. The way this gradually builds and builds to a ‘Killing In The Name’- style rock rant is kind of awesome.

She Said
Things are starting to go awry for Strickland. Starting off with a little breathy scatting and a Winehouse-y slink before moving into a kind of McAlmont and Butler high-drama falsetto gloss, threaded with subtle smoky horns. Again, it’s roughed up by a drop into bad-boy rap. And what’s this? A cheeky nod to the original ma-hoo-sive soul-pop mega hit? “Now my girl cries tears in the gallery/This has got bigger than I ever could have planned/Like that song by The Zutons, ‘Valerie’.” Narf!

Welcome To Hell
The strummed, Stain’d ish guitar at the start here raises the hideous spectre of Ben’s previous fondness for self-dramatising alt.rock balladry, but strings and McAlmontish swoon save the day. The chorus is still a bit weak, like, and the gospel choir clearly has not been through the Jason Pierce Gospel Choir Use Authorisation Committee (concept copyright Mr Hamish MacBain). Here we find Strickland banged up with “murderers, robbers and rapists” recalling his childhood reverend’s warnings of a fiery eternity. The outro’s mantra of “put my brave face, can’t let them know that I’m scared” is actually quite affecting.

Hard Times
Sometimes we’re edging into Lemar/Gabrielle territory, here. Mind you, that’s some pretty lucrative territory. A needle crackle overlies the smooth strings and comfortably loping bassline. OLD-SCHOOL, you see. WARM. AUTHENTIC. It is nice, though.

The Recluse
Yeah, this one’s rubbish. It’s probably supposed to be a concept story song in some kind of Scott Walker manner but the irritating circling string sample and the way he keeps helpfully explaining what a recluse is (“I don’t go outside for nothing/And no one is gonna make me leave this room”) makes it feel insubstantial next to the more developed numbers.

Traded In My Cigarettes
There’s a point where ‘smooth’ becomes ‘session muso’. That gospel choir’s back as well. Is it immature that we smirked at the line “so I saved up all my cigarettes and I traded them in for a tool”? Yes, probably. The Soulshank Redemption tales of prison life just don’t seem to ring true somehow.

This is very close to Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ or Ronson’s ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ with that same R&B fake-vintage feel, like a box-fresh new-design Mini. “Lord I’m pleading witchu/take this guilt out of my head” supplicates Ben/Strickland. I hate it when British people say ‘witchu’.

The Darkest Place
The glossy patina is starting to get in the way of the concept a bit now. It sounds like lyrically there’s a lot going on (“I’m in the darkest place, and I don’t even mean this jail/In my head there’s a darker space with an even darker cell”) but there’s no real emotional connection, and the contrast between silky and barky is becoming too pronounced.

Aiming at Dexys/Northern Soul and ending up in MFI advert. If you’ve not figured out yet, he’s IN JAIL: “I ain’t doing more time, get these chains off me”.

I Know A Song
Acoustic weepie time, kids. Anyone with a serious James Morrison allergy should steer well clear. It is one of those songs though, that if you were doing the dishes listening to Radio 2 and no one was around, you would totally sing along and then hate yourself.

What You Gonna Do?
“You can set me free or bang me up. Just stop torturing me and tell me what you’re gonna do.” By this point, no matter how sharp and savage Ben’s flow is, he’s pretty much battering you over the head with the concept, and the songs have weakened, leaving the album feeling pretty front-loaded.

Plan B’s ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ is set for release on April 5.