The Matthew Herbert Big Band There’s Me and There’s You

[!K7; 2008]

Styles: avant-garde big band, swing, musique concrète
Others: Benny Goodman, Matmos, Stephen Vitiello

Herbert’s bucked conventional approaches to genre since his earliest days as a producer, seeking out ever more esoteric sound sources to advance his peculiar album concepts. One of the first of these was House Music, a spritely take on musique-concrète built up from samples of household objects in action. Since that release more than a decade ago, Herbert has expanded his reach and amplified his politics. His albums now house sweeping polemics, which he couches in sounds culled from underground caves, coffins, underwater snare drums, chicken farms, and, on this album, even the Houses of Parliament.

The difference in scale between his early works and this album is revealed not only in the thematic content, but the chosen ensemble. There’s Me and There’s You finds Herbert voicing his political agenda with the bombastic language of big band jazz and, as usual, a plethora of curious samples. With 2006’s Scale, Herbert achieved a masterful juxtaposition of protest politics and gorgeous pop orchestration. There’s Me and There’s You is that record’s clumsy, overbearing cousin. Where Scale triumphed with debonair nuance and hidden ardor, his latest yammers on like a grandiloquent, overfed MP.

A track like “Battery” has the potential to move and intrigue. Its central sample is of an Argos battery charger, an object Herbert received as a birthday gift and one that was used as falsely damning evidence of two prisoners in CIA secret prisons. The spare, menacing introduction mirrors the malignant theme upon which the song purports to comment. Sadly, the danger and intrigue are crushed out of the song by a barrage of over-the-top brass and ham-fisted lyrics. “Waiting” has a Springtime for Hitler feel, as a lusty chorus belts out “Come on and feel the murder!” over and over atop boisterous horn fills. Even if we take these efforts as satirical, they have nothing on the understatement and cool of “Something Isn’t Right.”

Herbert deserves credit for calling into question the conceptual relationships between sounds and their sources. Yet, if 70 condoms scraped across the floor of the British Museum don’t sound all that different than garden variety radio static, one has to ask: is it worth the time and expense needed to seek out these sounds? And what impact can they have when they are crammed underneath blowzy big band arrangements like receipts in the bottom of a cash drawer?

If Herbert were seeking to replicate the co-optation of political truth by pop culture, I could consider this album a rather overbearing success. But I think he’s after more than that: he aspires to launch a grassroots cultural movement. Unfortunately, There’s Me and There’s You is a precipitate more than a catalyst, a document far less persuasive than a documentary about its own creation would be. Despite his grandiose attempts to unshackle music from the status quo, Herbert has saddled us with another product of big capital (his own), one whose political message is subverted by ill-advised composition and cloudy ethics. We’ve seen better from him before and I believe we will again.

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