By Mark Abraham | 8 June 2006
Scale: conflicted meta-title, a calendar manifesto, this year’s biggest understatement. Matthew Herbert’s work has always been about scale: the domestic, the body, big band, commercialism, your ass grooving. To purloin a phrase from Cat and Girl, his strict and impressive “aesthetics of inconvenience”—his concept sampling of everything from grains of sugar to household appliances—have allowed him to consistently rearticulate the false dichotomy between “music” and “noise” in far more immediate ways than his minimal, aleatoric, avante or out colleagues. At the same time, you could listen to all of his albums and not even know that’s the puzzle he’s assembling; his beautiful liner notes are deceptive in their lack of info, you’re left with only the box-cover picture, tongue lodged in your throat, asking: “how did you manage to make this music!”
If you get frustrated enough to turn the Rubik’s Cube of Herbert’s rubric inside out you’ll find that the answer is, of course, scale. Music is Jenga, and even if the beat of traditional house may fall along the scaled spine of a ruler, at times no more interesting than the Morse Code for “zzzzzzz,” “scale” is a word with quantitative properties ranging from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Human spines that can move to music are far more complex than their eponymous cousins, and, consequently, so too is Herbert’s music. Scale (the getting from there to here, the measurement for houses, the basics of complex calculus) is always Herbert’s point, because “scale” has no qualitative properties.
To paraphrase Herbert from Scale’s making-of video
Scale constantly vocalizes that concept. During “Harmonise,” Dani Siciliano sings “you are the world / I am your people.” “Something Isn’t Right” suggests you “hit the nail but not the head.” “The Movers and the Shakers” wonders how “this holy mess could generate love and war.” “Birds of a Feather” purrs, “oh no it’s a beat you’re missing / wait no it’s a song inside.” Dichotomies, juxtapositions, parts—these are the scrap heaps from which Scale’s pristine songs are made, but are also the component structures of Herbert’s political vision: to reform the world and its people, start with the “I” and the “you,” and the implicit relationship between them; to reform the political potential of art, acknowledge, as Siciliano does on “Harmonise,” that without an audience, art can’t exist.
Elsewhere, over an inchoate funk lick, Siciliano rocks “Moving Like a Train,” smirking through the line “you’ve never heard a human make a sound like this.” That’s not quite true; though the cat’s cradle arrangements of strings and horns are brilliant, you’ll recognize the late ‘70s vibe. Herbert has made a disco album a 2006 favorite for me not just because its political message condenses the collected works of Foucault to their proper, simple explanation of personal relationships, but also because this music is fucking hot. If Herbert has built his career on trying to bring the random cacophony of our everyday lives onto the dance floor, the “trying” is now done with, and the dance floor may finally accept his coffins, meteorites, and petrol pumps. “The Movers and the Shakers” throws coughs, breathing, ignition caps, a drunk horn section, sine waves, and what just may sound like a shampoo bottle into a Wall Street mock-up party anthem. “Something Isn’t Right” pinwheels guitar, strings and horns around its plastic handle (a one note bass line); the incredibly complex vocal melodies constantly shift, and Siciliano, Neil Thomas and Dave Okumu climb each other’s spines like staircases, a gospel choir manifest in the power of three.
The increased accessibility was inspired, we can assume, by his recent Ruby Blue adventures; he neglects to mention it in the making-of video, suggesting that Plat Du Jour was so minimal that he just wanted to embrace melody and expansive sound again, but…come on Matthew. I don’t think anybody is going to miss the similarities between this and your recent Róisín production work. Not that I’m complaining—forget Feist’s “without irony” cover of “Inside and Out”; this is exactly where disco might have gotten to if it hadn’t drowned in its own irony, unable to out its own insides. “Movie Star” is that confession; blocks and boxes shuffle while Siciliano sings lightly about stardom, but it’s the ability to be quiet, reflective, an oxymoron of sublime funk, that allows the track to work. Similarly, “Those Feelings” is endlessly pretty; a hall of mirrors where every reflection shows a whispy end of Siciliano’s falsetto, lizards chasing each other’s tails. It’s a lovely little maze, and when you exit, the reward is the wide-open countryside of “Down,” where everything is blinding technicolor, and the last few minutes of chiming euphoria make me think Herbert could take over the world, or at least Caribou’s gig, if he wanted.
Scale is a success because it proves, rather than hints, that house divided against itself can stand quite easily. As long as all of the disparate parts are built to scale, the complexity of music can be exactly this easy, and that natural, fun quality makes the politics and nauseating complexity of Herbert’s process an embraceable epistemology. Inch by inch—concept, production, groove—Scale will measure your desires and dole out exactly what you want: depth, politics, creativity, or club-ready curios. The cherry on top is at the very end; Herbert himself sings his way through “Wrong,” the artist’s voice accompanied only by piano, stripped of gadgetry. It’s awkward, he croaks a little, and it’s all the more beautiful for it: perfectly to scale.