A Seventh Chance at a First Impression
It feels surreal to say, but after 13 years of commitment to the world’s biggest and best independent label, the Herbaliser are no longer signed to Ninja Tune. On a personal note, it was the act of buying 1997’s Blow Your Headphones at random in a used record store that introduced me to the Zen catalogue all those years ago, single-handedly sparking my interest in indie hip-hop. And now they’ve gone their separate ways, albeit amicably. While the Herb aesthetic has shifted away from a focus on dusty samples to now include a full touring band and permanent singer in the studio, they have left their British home and signed with Germany’s Studio !K7. Like it or lump it, this is the beginning of a new chapter in their story.
Jake Wherry formed Herbaliser when he met young deejay Ollie Teeba in their hometown of South London back in the early ‘90s. They hooked up with Ninja Tune early in its history, with their cut-and-paste 1995 debut Remedies being just the 18th record catalogued as Zen. Blow Your Headphones followed with more of a sampled jazz and trip-hop feel. The three records after that followed a similar path. While the duo’s production value improved, and the touring band began to take a larger role in the studio, their output seemed to become more formulaic as hip-hop albums. But something has changed, besides their contract. Same as It Never Was, their seventh studio album, is not just a clever name.
Ralph Lamb (trumpet) and Andy Ross (flute, saxophone) from the touring band have now become official, permanent members, as well as smoky voiced chanteuse Jessica Darling. The fresh meat and change of scenery must have done wonders in the studio ‘cause this record sounds completely re-inspired. There are only a couple of real hip-hop tracks on the listing. Instead, Same as It Never Was joins the ranks of Jamie Lidell, Quantic Soul Orchestra, and the Dap Kings as a work of vigorous throwback funk. This is Herbaliser putting something back for the ages.
Darling gets her introduction with “On Your Knees”. Ollie fits in a little timely scratching and a booming rhythm section, but straight funk riffs, organ, and horns drive the track. Jessica’s vocals—which one-up former Tru Thoughts everygirl Alice Russell in terms of a young lady with a 50-year-old’s pipes—deliver a classic “Boy, you’re gonna realize you done wrong” story so authentic you can almost hear the Stax bricks vibrating. “Can’t Help This Feeling” cements her new reputation. Musically, the guitars add something of a Blaxploitation edge to the mix, while the chorus seems to add a little ‘70s disco flavor. It’s a sure future-retro classic.
Surprisingly, the instrumental “Amores Bongo” sounds like a remastered Joe Meek ‘50s sci-fi cut. The Addams Family horns and space synth really take it there. Jean Grae (formerly What What) returns to keep her average of appearing on every other Herbaliser album intact. She raps, but her backing track is much more like a low-key Isaac Hayes or Lalo Schifrin jam from a forgotten soundtrack. All the field recordings and deliberate sample cues help make it as cinematic as the electric piano, flute, stabbing horns, and liquid funk bassline does.
I’ve been a great fan of Herbaliser’s for years, and though I’d like to think Blow Your Headphones is their finest work on account of my experience with it, there’s no getting around the potent punch packed in their latest bomb. “Game, Set and Match” with More Or Les is the only track that doesn’t fit in. With a typical beat, accordion, and hard rhymes, it sounds like a leftover from 2005’s Take London. Other than that, Same as It Never Was is their undisputed best record start to finish. They’ve totally outdone themselves. My hat is off to you, fine sirs and Madame.
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// Notes from the Road
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