ight, let's make this official: the whole spy-movie-themes-and-breakbeats thing? Been done. Move along. Not that it wasn't fun while it lasted, but let's face it: the range of possible directions for this idea is finite.
Ten years ago, the Ninja Tune label was busy cornering the market on this stuff. It was sort of an offshoot of that whole cocktail-nation 50s kitsch/nostalgia wing of the trip-hop crowd, a subgenre of a subgenre of a subgenre, if you will. The edgy cool of a good hip-hop beat made a surprisingly fitting complement for the melodramatic bluster of Henry Mancini and the like, but it was always kind of gimmicky, too. I say spy-movie themes and drum loops should have been permanently put to rest following the release of the mildly anticipated and terribly under whelming Propellerheads album. They stretched the style to its logical limits, even going so far as to recruit the original Bond film chanteuse, Shirley Bassey, for a guest vocal spot, and in doing so exposed the genre's utter lack of potential. It was a stylistic cul de sac, and the dead end had been reached.
The Herbaliser (bloody awful name, that; for obvious reasons I always confuse them with Morcheeba), however, seem to think the road goes on forever, and continue to juggle those twangy guitars like it's 1962 via 1996. Sampled voices snarl menacingly over blaring brass and shuffling bongos throughout the DJ duo's fifth full-length, and I can't help but think I've heard it all before.
Which is not to say, mind you, that the Herbaliser aren't good at it. In fact within this narrow context they're quite good. The tracks are densely layered, the beats a decent enough blend of big-band swing and new-school hip-hop swing. But I mean really, how long can this keep up? The album itself is too long by at least fifteen minutes, as the individual tracks are all too long by about a minute-and-a-half. The theme is introduced, and they drive it into the ground. There is exactly one memorable track here among the instrumentals, the groovy and urgent "Geddim!!," which rides a disorientingly doubled up (actually the pattern is AABABBCC) riff on the bass strings quite effectively, but the rest of the songs blend together without distinguishing themselves.
Somewhat more successful are the cuts with guest rappers, most notably a few with the woefully under appreciated Jean Grae. The opening song, "Nah'mean Nah'm Sayin'," plays a pair of contradictory horn samples off each other until they come together every few bars, and the effect perfectly matches Grae's tendency to hop back and forth around the beat rather than ride it. Of course, as with all guest vocal spots on DJ albums, they're too intermittent to really establish a solid momentum from track to track, and provide more hindrance than help in terms of holding the album together.
Which makes me wonder why the Herbaliser bother making full-lengths of their own. Why not produce a few hip-hop albums for individual artists? Rather than flogging a worn-out idea in the electronica realm, they could be introducing fresh ideas to the rap underground, where their dramatic flair and organic sounds would fit many left-of-the-mainstream hip-hop acts like a glove. Sure would beat yet another album of this stuff.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-06-30