[4 August 2009]
If electronic music was ever in crisis, you wouldn’t know it from the Herbaliser. Beginning as a duo of London record fiends (Jake Wherry and Olie Teeba) some 15 years ago, the Herbaliser offered dance heads a distinctly “London sound” to contrast with the Madchester techno hangover glorified by the Chemical Brothers and industrial trip-hop peddled by Bristol’s Portishead. Their “sound” was a blend of big band bravado, free-form jazz, trip-hop tapestries and turntable trickery that affected timelessness thanks to its jazz-funk roots. With that blend the duo fabricated everything from neo-psychedelic sci-fi (as in on “Moon Sequence”) to John Barry-esque soundtracks of unmade mid-century capers (consider “The Missing Suitcase”) to old school hip-hop (e.g. “Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks”, which irreverently gibes with the vocal sample: “All material is copyright”). With an oeuvre that co-opted sonic sensibilities scaling the latter half of the 20th century, the Herbaliser were impervious to the vagaries of music tastes, unlike some of their “regional” counterparts with their tiresome total-looking sound.
That said, the duo was by no means a couple of nerds affecting weird retrofuturistic bravura in their bedrooms; a live sound was very much coveted. So they hooked up with brass musicians Ralph Lamb and Andy Ross of the Easy Access Orchestra as well as a menagerie of singers and rappers including Roots Manuva and Jean Grae. With an expanded troupe of varying numbers, the band’s live appearances became must-see jam-like performances resplendent with bohemian brass and sass. The band’s latest LP, Same As It Never Was (2008), expanded on the live sound with young chanteuse Jessica Darling jumping onboard to help execute the band’s new preoccupation: soul-pop. This critic has misgivings about this latest turn of events, thinking it slots the band’s sound uncomfortably close to highly marketable female-driven outfits like Alice Russell and Kinny.
Thankfully Session 2 has the Herbaliser revisiting their celebrated instrumentals before they close a chapter. The idea is to create “live” versions of the instrumentals in a studio environment like they did with Session 1, which came out in 2000 as a controlled “jam session”. Each of the eight main tracks (culled from Blow Your Headphones (1997), Very Mercenary (1999), Take London (2005) and Same As It Never Was (2008)) are treated with a spontaneous, organic pizzazz fit for performance halls to contrast with the dampened more calculated (but not necessarily lacklustre) headphone-space sound of their originals. This is largely achieved by the ample use of a fat, effulgent brass section that throws the richly layered textures of tracks like “Amores Bongo” into even greater relief. Teeba also gives the tracks an extra groove and a kick with heavily laid rhythmic vinyl scratches.
“Mr Chombee Has the Flaw” opens the session, letting rip a beatnik groove galvanised by the asymmetric drumbeat of the original. A chunky brass section, which contrasts with the original’s threadbare instrumentation, fizzes with some welcome pomp while the addition of a jazzy ragtime piano hook and more pronounced echo-doused turntabilism spices up the rather repetitive original. Session’s incarnation of “Another Mother”, built up from “AM Prelude”, the first of the free-form jazz interludes, exaggerates the visual of a pungent green amorphous spectre lurking in the cold, dank subterranean depths of a city. That’s because absent from the original are its ghoulish cries, wah-wah guitars, deconstructed siren sounds, rippling vinyl shreds. Meanwhile, “Moon Sequence”, a delightfully timely re-release, features a longer-running sample of NASA talk.
While the versions on Session 2 tend to give oomph to their originals with higher production values, “Geddim!” is about the only track which lacks the lustre of its original. The original of this cover of Stan Getz’ and Eddie Sauter’s “I’m Late, I’m Late” was coated with a kitschy Blaxploitation alloy which submitted the listener to a bricolage of tinny snare, blistering brass, a Bogart excerpt, and blues guitar—without sounding bloated. On Session, the sway of Quincy Jones is still present (while Bogie’s ghost has all but given up) but where the sax and trumpets on the original can be clearly discerned, this latest amalgamates the brass into a monolithic whole. The latest also lacks the romantic wash of cinematic strings followed by the doped-as-Hendrix guitar solo. This isn’t to say that the version is bad—in fact some listeners may prefer its less overstated grandiloquence—but it doesn’t quite grab you in the way you’d expect from hearing neighbouring tracks. Nonetheless, its enhanced bongo-led and jittery hi-hat intro is a delight and its wah-wah bassline is a more sturdy, not to mention groovy, foundation for a track of this ilk than the original’s creeping piano backbone.
Session 2 is possibly the last all-instrumental town that the Herbaliser will drive by for a while as they continue chipping away at their newly-formed funk-soul guise. The moment, in the Herbaliser narrative at least, seems to be as momentous as if the Beatles had decided to stop fomenting revolution with their psych and prog rock to return to the touring circuit with pleasing love songs.