Music

The Herbaliser: Herbal Tonic

Career-spanning collection of hip-hop, jazz, funk, and more from one of the charter Ninja Tune acts.


The Herbaliser

Herbal Tonic

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2010-06-29
UK Release Date: 2010-06-28
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.

Film

A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.

Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.