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The Herbaliser - Same As It Never Was

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Artist: The Herbaliser

Album: Same As It Never Was

Label: Ninja Tune

Review date: May. 28, 2008

With a new label and a new lineup, you might understandably fear that Ollie Teeba and Jake Wherry of the Herbaliser have lost a step. Their longstanding partnership with Ninja Tune is kaput. Their signature brand of funky breaks carries less and less cachet with each passing day. And let's face it: more often than not, bands simply run out of steam by their sixth full-length – if they're fortunate to make it that far.

That's what makes Same As It Never Was such a pleasant surprise. Teeba and Wherry fuse a foundation of hip-hop beats with remarkable funk and soul touches, and without recycling their already dated back catalog. In fact, with the participation of an expanded band and the addition of Jessica Darling, a 22-year-old London singer with a voice that belies her years, we're treated to arguably the band's best album. And if the thought of a young, soulful Brit backed by turntables has you imagining an electro-lounge Amy Winehouse, don’t fret – Darling clearly feels the rhythms here and need not suffer any comparisons.

The title song starts the album with a repeating sample of the title itself, then a jazzy swing kicks in and we're off on a horn-led ride through a filmic soul romp that could be the soundtrack to a weird Western/crime thriller hybrid. It's an effective intro for the album, leading into "On Your Knees," which introduces Darling's soulful vocals amidst deep funk, complete with squiggly synth leads and wah guitar. The song is a burner that harkens back to the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, and it's pretty fabulous. Darling features on the majority of the songs here – which is a good thing – but as always, the Herbaliser also bring in some guest rappers, including former collaborator Jean Grae, Toronto's More or Les, and London’s Yungun. The latter's smooth, strong delivery rides a bouncing rhythm in "Just Won't Stop," while on "Game Set & Match," More or Les provides fast-paced rapping alongside a comedic eastern-European musical landscape, complete with accordion.

A film-noir atmosphere pervades several of the best tracks, including the black and white instrumental vistas of "The Next Spot" and "Blackwater Drive.” The Latin oddity of "Amores Bongo" doesn't fit altogether comfortably in the middle of the album, but it's an awfully fun cartoonish piece with a terrific horn chorus.

But the high points belong primarily to Darling, with "Can't Help This Feeling" topping the list. Her powerful vocals rise easily over the funk beat, complete with backup singers, a muscular bassline, and perfectly-placed horns that not only accent but often take the lead. Darling also stars on the rowdy funk sing-along "You're Not All That" and "Clap Your Hands," a big-beat party tune in an Ike Turner style. The closing "Stranded on Earth" blends horn, harp and organ into a dignified march, but when Darling's vocals finally enter, they push it over the top, taking the album to a particularly strong finish.

The Herbaliser have released over a half-dozen albums and have certainly evolved since their roughshod beginnings. Same As It Never Was is inarguably slickly-produced, but it's by no means style over substance. These are well-crafted songs, plain and simple, instrumentals included. And with the inclusion of Darling, the Herbaliser have a voice that can lead the way into hip-hop, funk, jazz or wherever else they choose to go.

By Mason Jones

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