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The Herbaliser

Herbal Tonic

(Ninja Tune; US: 29 Jun 2010; UK: 28 Jun 2010)

Think Ninja Tune records in the mid-1990s, and the Herbaliser has to be one of the first names that pops into your mind. Along with DJ Food, DJ Vadim, and Up, Bustle and Out, the Herbaliser joined Ninja Tune founders Coldcut as one of the fledgling label’s signature acts. Naturally, then, they helped define Ninja Tune’s signature sound, a dense, blunted combination of jazz, hip-hop, electronica, and turntablism. Over the course of 15 years, eight studio albums, and even a label change, that sound hasn’t changed all that much. Instead, it’s been honed and placed into new, intriguing contexts. Spanning the band’s career to date, Herbal Tonic does an excellent job at capturing all of them.


Headed up by Londoners Jake Wherry and Oliver Trattles, the Herbaliser occupies a unique sonic space where different strains of urban music intersect, and where the line between live and sampled instrumentation is blurred. When it was pioneered in the early 1990s, this approach yielded something that sounded like instrumental hip-hop. No sooner was the convenient catch-all term “trip-hop” coined before everyone from the Ninja Tune bands to Massive Attack came to loathe it. Look up the Herbaliser on Wikipedia now, and you’ll be hard-pressed to even find the term, as the band is described as “jazz rap”. Personally, I think “trip-hop” sounds a bit less corny, but whatever you call it, the Herbaliser has been among its best, most consistent purveyors. Therefore, what you’re getting with Herbal Tonic isn’t just the best of the Herbaliser. In a sense, it doubles as the best of an entire genre.


It didn’t take long before guest MCs were recruited to rap over the stoned-out breakbeats. Indeed, a third of the 15 tracks here are hip-hop, with some excellent talent on the mic. Longtime Herbaliser favorite Jean Grae is showcased on three outstanding tracks, her no-nonsense flow taking control of “Nah’ Mean Nah’m Sayin’” while uneasy horn blasts cover her back. “The Blend” slinks up to you like a sexy, noir-ish private eye, while “Tea & Beer” takes no prisoners. American MF Doom is full of menace on “It Ain’t Nuttin’”, while the frantic, always-welcome Roots Manuva fronts “Starlight”, a genuinely jazzy number with a nifty, surprising minor-key turn.


The jazz tag is significant, too. While the Bristol crew, headed by Massive Attack, were much too Serious and rigid to bother with jazz, acts like the Herbaliser reveled in its free-form playfulness and expressive qualities. So much so that Wherry and Trattles have recorded two all-instrumental albums with a full live band. “Mr. Chombee Has the Flaw” mixes up bebop with heavy funk and scratching, while “Ginger Jumps the Fence” is widescreen exotica.


And these are just the two ends of the urban spectrum that the Herbaliser has so deftly connected throughout its career. That they have done this so convincingly is testament to not only their musical chops, but also their genuine love of all the sounds they take in. And that’s not all. “Gadjet Funk”, all deep electrobass, driving percussion, and space lasers, might just be the best thing here. It’s certainly the most devastatingly out-of-this-world piece of funkadelia not performed by someone named Clinton or Collins. “A Song For Mary” and “Something Wicked” show that the guys can do more downtempo, sinister-sounding trip-hop when they feel like it. “Stranded On Earth”, from 2008’s Same as It Never Was, ends the set on a suitably epic, melancholy note. It would make a perfect end-credits number for a drama or action film, and it’s proof Wherry and Trattles are still finding ways to take those familiar sounds into new territory. The previously-unreleased “March of the Dead Things” and dated “The Sensual Woman”, with ‘50s-style sampled voiceover, are the only relative duds.


Whatever you want to call its music, the Herbaliser is a unique, important band, and Herbal Tonic is a top-notch cure for sonic boredom.

Rating:

John Bergstrom has been writing various reviews and features for PopMatters since 2004. He has been a music fanatic at least since he and a couple friends put together The Rock Group Dictionary in third grade (although he now admits that giving Pat Benatar the title of "first good female rocker" was probably a mistake). He has done freelance writing for Trouser Pressonline, Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, and the late Milk magazine and website. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and two kids, both of whom are very good dancers.


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