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Matthew Herbert - Plat du Jour

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Artist: Matthew Herbert

Album: Plat du Jour

Label: Accidental

Review date: Aug. 31, 2005

Over the last five years, Herbert has left behind the rich, body-wise sensuality of his classic house productions – his Parts 1-5 12” series, and the Around the House and Bodily Functions albums – and turned his stealthy eye and sampler toward politics. His music has in turn moved back to the concrete stylings of his Wishmountain and Radioboy aliases. On Plat du Jour, Herbert questions the food we consume, its provenance, its processes, its mastication and defecation, and its place within modern life. Call it protest music, albeit far removed from the traditional chest-beating folk song, where the semiotic scansions and pulsations of frustration try to beat through syntax as cloyingly trite as Mills and Boon back-page blurbs.

The great victory of Herbert’s work of the past decade has been the manifestation of theoretical content within the music. His sound quite literally contains/displays his politics, far from some of the drier academic applications of post-structuralist thought to furrowed-brow electronica or noise. However, that victory comes with its downside, as Herbert sometimes lets the liner notes do the talking; while he has integrated politics and sound in a more thoroughgoing manner than most, on occasion he forgets the pleasure of music’s play. Here is the great contention of Plat Du Jour: politically sharp and immaculately researched, many of the tracks nonetheless fall on their aesthetic merits. Sometimes it sounds homogenous, and its lexicon can be dry and uninspired. Some of the songs are thin sketches of ideas: “Sugar”’s playful, hyperactive tone simulates a ‘sugar rush’ but comes off too trite and gabby; “Celebrity” may be a simulation of the robotics of modern R&B but its lyrics are paper-thin polemics, and the song feels awkward and ungainly.

That tension – between the politics of music/music of politics, and the sheer semiotic excess of music itself, the very fabric of sound that we so romanticise and valorize – is an issue that has plagued my response to Herbert’s last handful of records (The Mechanics of Destruction, Goodbye Swingtime). There are only two songs on Plat du Jour that I unreservedly love: the bittersweet threnody for broiler chickens that is “The Truncated Life of A Modern Industrialised Chicken,” which offsets clocking electronica tones with cooped-up, claustrophobic field recordings, and “The Final Meal of Stacey Lawton,” which builds inexorably from unassuming beginnings – the crunching of pickles, Lawton’s last meal before his execution on George Bush’s watch as governor of Texas – to a gorgeously sad melodic rumination on who calls the shots on the Iron Lady.

Maybe love’s not in it. Some records and texts exist as signposts, reminders of broader moral issues. Then again, why shouldn’t we think of music as one part of a complex web of social and political issues – and why shouldn’t it comment on and review those issues not just through lyrical content, but also in its musical details? With Plat du Jour you’re torn between admiration for the act itself, the dedication to music as more than ambivalent soundtrack to consumption, and realizing the final ‘product’ contains all the flaws that are part of human creation… and political commentary; and our relationship with food; and…

Plat du Jour is no great aesthetic success (it is too spotty and inconsistent) and its discursive dogmatism can border on sledgehammer browbeating. Nevertheless, Herbert does ask questions no other artist is wont to pose; for this, he commands our respect. And if you’ve ever thought that music was something more than passing flotsam, then perhaps it’s worth thinking about how we relate to this thing called music – and how we relate it, and how it relates itself, to the rest of the world, to our everyday lives… Perhaps this is Herbert’s ultimate aim: to lift the obscuring veil that mystifies and depoliticizes music in our everyday life at every step and that suggests music should always be depoliticized, a pre-socialised act of pure play and ideation.

By Jon Dale

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