The Matthew Herbert Big Band
There's Me And There's You
By David Abravanel | 21 November 2008
Discipline, limitation, and healthy doses of frustration and perfectionism inform a great deal of Matthew Herbert’s work. Ironically, from such confines have come a number of masterpiece meditations on freedom, tyranny, and power. Back in the summer days of Listravaganza, I referenced Herbert’s Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (PCCOM) in a satirical list of ideas for the next Matmos release. Consider the latter duo, another act that has made a name through experimentally conceptual works. Matmos tends to get dirty, however; you can subconsciously tell that you’re hearing fat being sucked through a tube or compressions on a cow uterus. While Herbert’s methodology might be equally mired in muck as Matmos’ at times, the final productions sound undeniably like high culture. Tell me you couldn’t play this at the right dinner party or art gala.
Clean as the sounds might be, nothing is generally what it seems in a Herbert track. Perhaps the bourgeois nature of the productions, more than just symptomatic of Herbert’s love affair with big band jazz (and you can hear it in more than just the Matthew Herbert Big Band albums), is all part of the silk purse from the sow’s ears. Let’s think of this in another way:
We, the undersigned, believe that music can still be a political force of note and not just the soundtrack to over-consumption.
This declaration, accompanied by 18 signatories, makes up the cover art for There’s Me And There’s You. Taken at face value, it’s a reiteration of what any Herbert listener knows—despite his obsessions with “magic and accident” in music, there are no incidentally gathered samples. He’s not going to rap on a table just because it sounds good, but if it’s an antique situated in the British House of Parliament, well, that’s another thing. And, once again, in the end we have a cohesive aesthetic work from what can be the most disparate, nonmusical, and downright ugly sampled material. Think of the “magic” part as alchemy.
As usual, Herbert remains obsessed with power, and what people, strong in numbers, can do to challenge it. Originally conceived to be an album consisting of samples recorded in or near the aforementioned House of Parliament, There’s Me And There’s You is instead expanded to include a fuller and more complex spectrum of socio-political outrage. The personal and the political collide on “One Life,” where Herbert samples beeps from the machine his pre-maturely born son was hooked up to. Each beep on the track is intended to represent 100 people killed in Iraq since the start of the War in 2003. The mixture of fragile beauty and anxiety that must accompany a father watching his baby son struggle is represented by a juxtaposition of the pleasant melody in the foreground, and the rapid-fire stutter of beeps crawling along in spite of the piece. It’s at first depressing, and then simply numbing, a musical illustration of Stalin’s adage that enough deaths become a statistic rather than a tragedy. “Every single death / A single cry” sings collaborator Eska, vocalizing Herbert’s frustrating effort to pay appropriate artistic homage to those who have suffered at the ends of a needless war.
And what if you aren’t the type to read liner notes? This is the issue with any kind of musique concrète, compounded when you take into account the ambiguous aural nature of most of Herbert’s samples. “Pontificate” apparently features the sounds of 74 condoms being dragged along a floor, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing. How about the 100 credit cards being cut up on “The Rich Man’s Prayer”? I could go on, but to fully list the eccentric sample sources on There’s Me, while entertaining, is a waste of critical space. Maybe Herbert has anticipated an audience that won’t all be enraptured by a list of sound sources, and remedied the issue by including lyrics that explicitly state the purposes of each track. The samples are, more than ever, a kind of meticulous set design to frame the gorgeous pieces that unfold; like it or not, you’re getting a lesson in the injustices plaguing today’s world. Like the last Matthew Herbert Big Band album, 2003’s Goodbye Swingtime, which gave us the interesting vision of a tuxedo-clad band declaring “not in my name!”, There’s Me And There’s You once again resituates big band jazz, traditionally a medium of high culture, as a passionate force of the capital-p People. And to think, this music was originally popular during an era when Americans were deathly afraid of socialism.
It’s incredibly difficult to assign a rating to There’s Me And There’s You. I can’t escape the feeling that so much of the album’s success depends upon a highly subjective measure of whether Herbert and co. have delivered on the promise of the cover art declaration. It feels almost vulgar to score the dense, conceptual ideas here in the same manner as one would a fresh-faced band of rockers. This is a record filled with breezy jazz tunes ripe for a dance hall. It’s also music that will give you a headache from thinking, if you take the time to truly appreciate the multi-faceted work of art that it is.