Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Weekly, Volume Thirty-Nine

Album:
Scale (Herbert)

Superficially soulful, yet strangely antiseptic, the latest album from sample-happy producer Matthew Herbert is something of a contradiction in terms. Essentially a functional record, Scale features semi-glitchy house beats that ground layers of string, horn and keyboard samples. It's dance music for the indie-chic urban upper class. Herbert takes his rhythmic cues from American R&B and funk and adapts them to the on-beat Euro-house soundscape. The beats are lithe and lively, and manage to lock in superbly; however, they never quite reach the aggressively euphoric levels achieved by other rhythm-intensive electronic artists such as Four Tet, Caribou or M83. (Obviously, Herbert's music is fundamentally different than the above-mentioned artists, but it's necessary to draw the comparison between rhythm as dance-functional and rhythm as complex near-melodic element, for on Scale, Herbert seems to be intent on skewing the line between the two). Of course, electro rhythms are only one part of the project. Scale's central conceit is the use of string and horn orchestrations straight out of Philadelphia Soul. Sure it's pure gloss, but coupled with syncopated, intricately-harmonized vocals by Dani Siciliano and Herbert himself, things somehow manage to work. Album opener "Something Isn't Right" and "Moving Like a Train" are prime examples of the synthesis Herbert achieves, though the latter also demonstrates what may be the album's main disadvantage: much of the music here treads very close to the line at which slickly-produced, melodic electronica becomes something akin to lite rock. Ultimately, Scale is an intriguing concept and certainly well-executed, but the album's silkiness is occasionally hard to swallow.

Album #2:
In the Heart of the Moon
(Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate)

A gorgeous recording of laid-back "Jurana Kura" music from Mali, pairs two of West Africa's best-loved talents. The music (at least to this white-person-with- a-single-university-level-credit-in-ethnomusicology's ears) is more about atmosphere than formal song structure. Farka Toure and Diabate begin with a basic melodic idea and extrapolate from there. Farka Toure's playing here is surprisingly restrained. He provides the foundation; his shambling guitar picking acts as a bass line of sorts. The nature of their instruments means that Diabate (on the kora, a 21-stringed west African harp) is afforded considerably more opportunity to improvise, and his marriage or technique and taste is simply thrilling. Farka Toure shines as well in his role: his improvisation is less flashy, but is perhaps even more in service of the song: small embellishments that make a great difference. Unfortunately, this instrumental album, which generally features but two instruments, can be a slightly monotonous listen if the mood isn't right. Both players do what they do very well, and as a live recording without edits or overdubbing the album showcases the musicians' fine form in spades, but rarely do Farka Toure and Diabate deviate from their established approach, and the largely modal tunes start to sound a tad "samey" if one is not listening intently. "Debe," the upbeat "Kadi Kadi" and "Gomni," for example, are all wonderful, but they do lapse into repetition once in a while. Regardless, In the Heart of the Moon is an excellent album, and as one of Ali Farka Toure's last official releases, it is a true testament to his subtle and mesmerizing talents.

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