Monday, May 03, 2010

Number One

Matthew Herbert - One One (Accidental)

Occasionally, it's easy to get a little too accustomed to an artist's signature sound, or perhaps more accurately in Matthew Herbert's case, his approach. We know about his radicalism and political activism, we know about his sampling techniques and his didactic, musical ideology. We also know that this approach somehow resulted in some of the finest music of the past decade - music of palpable relevance but with a reach much wider than its immediate context. His most recent Big Band record, on reflection, appears to have been significantly underrated.

It's probably unfair to judge 'One One' in isolation, given that it is part of a projected trilogy of albums all due for release in 2010. This will conclude later in the year with 'One Club', a work made from sounds recorded in nightclubs, and then with the highly controversial 'One Pig', made from sounds recorded from the life cycle of a pig farmed for meat. The latter appears to be a more specific extension of concerns Herbert has already tackled with the astounding 'Plat du Jour' (on which he showcased his own distinctive brand of musique concrete), whilst we might reasonably expect 'One Club' to be one of his more conventional house-influenced records.

The trilogy therefore starts with a total curveball. 'One One' is completely unlike previous Herbert records in both sound and approach. First, it's based less on samples and sounds and more on instrumental parts, all of which were played and recorded by Herbert himself. Secondly, there are no collaborators here - Herbert also sang all the vocal lines.

A cursory listen might suggest this was a rather reckless idea. Herbert is neither a gifted instrumentalist nor a powerful singer. Indeed, the vocals are conversational at best, and often out of tune. Yet the effect of this minimal, peculiar music is disorientating and surprising. This is not a confrontational record - rather, it's Herbert's most intimate and hypnotic work to date.

Although all the tracks are named after major cities ('Manchester', 'Milan', 'Leipzig', 'Porto' - and, er, spot the odd one out, 'Tonbridge'), the overarching concept here is that 'One One' supposedly details one night in its creator's life. Musically, it's largely quiet and unobtrusive, but it's also deftly nuanced, and it's precisely for this reason that it sounds like a journey and an adventure. Songs often threaten to build into something explosive but frequently hold back - 'One One' is full of tantalising promise.

The outstanding example is 'Dublin', built on the simplest of ostinato figures on a guitar, over which Herbert layers increasingly intoxicating vocal lines. 'Leipzig' is full of dark temptation, excitement and perhaps even threat, all concocted from the very simplest of ingredients. In the most part, the rhythms are simple and direct, but also delicate, suggesting vulnerability. Most confounding of all is the closing 'Valencia', which gradually fades to almost nothing, lingering in the memory largely because of its sheer weirdness and originality.

If it initially sounds tentative, 'One One' eventually reveals itself as a very carefully judged, superbly timed, logically and musically coherent statement. It will certainly confuse many of Herbert's long-term fans, although perhaps less so those who have followed the weird world of home-baked folk, electronica and bedroom soul released across his Accidental label. It's difficult to predict what the rest of the trilogy will sound like now - but it's already beginning to sound like one of the year's bravest and most surprising achievements.

No comments: