You gotta love a guy who would bring a drum kit up in an air balloon just for the sake of recording a beat at 2,000 feet. Well, it's also possible you could brand him a pretentious jerk. But there's something to be said for music from a relentlessly curious mind, and that's what Matthew Herbert offers.
Herbert is a prolific Brit who also records under the names Dr. Rockit, Radio Boy and others. His CDs get filed under electronica; but while that genre is often associated with blips and bleeps lazily manipulated from the comfort of a computerized studio, Herbert defies that stereotype with his classical training, use of traditional instrumentation and enterprising approaches to recording.
Despite his creativity, it's still true that some of Herbert's work, which includes albums built around household noise (Around the House) and corporeal sounds (Bodily Functions), nevertheless feels like blips and bleeps manipulated from the comfort of a computerized studio. But he's so versatile, and capable of soul, that he's impossible to dismiss as a novelty.
On his latest album, Scale, Herbert says he sampled a total of 723 objects, including the air-balloon drum, gas pumps and a Royal Air Force Tornado bomber. It would take more discerning ears than mine to distinguish more than a handful of these samples on Scale; what stands out is how pop-friendly and melodic the album is compared to Herbert's previous work. Smooth, Basia-like vocals from Dani Siciliano are featured on most of the tracks. The last one, "Wrong," is just a minute of Herbert singing over piano.
Many of the songs also feature string arrangements and horns, lending a romantic, MGM-type feel. Hearing "We're in Love" reminded me of the first time I really appreciated strings in pop music, and that was Prince's Parade. Any hardcore Prince fan will respond to Scale on the basis of its similarity to the period when the Purple One used the vocals of the Melvoin sisters liberally, along with orchestral strings.
What's startling about Scale is the message behind it. Songs such as "Harmonise" and "We're in Love" sound like continental romance with a backbeat, making it all the more jarring to find out that the theme here is global unrest and the love affair is with oil.
That doesn't mean every song feels deceptively shiny. A couple of tracks are interesting, but not necessarily pleasant to listen to. "Just Once," for example, sounds like Herbert used about 500 of the 723 samples to create a disturbing, post-apocalyptic feel. And you might find yourself checking your cell phone to see if it's vibrating at the end of "Those Feelings," if the whirring background vocal loop doesn't drive you crazy first.
The press material for Scale suggests that a couple of tracks, such as "The Movers and the Shakers," are "club-friendly." That's sort of like saying Erik Satie's "Gymnopédies" are a great mood-booster. Unless remixed significantly, the songs here aren't the type of thing you're likely to dance to in clubs or on the radio -- but that's also what makes them worth listening to. They're unique, and at times beautiful.
The political posturing on Scale may sound like a turn-off, but most of it is subtle and takes a back seat to the music (except when it IS the music, and even then it's easy to overlook). Given the current context, Scale's focus on the closing oil age manages to be more poignant than the end of any other kind of love story.