The Herbaliser's Head-Nodding Hedonism
Listen to the first Herbaliser album, 1995's Remedies, and then to the latest one, Same as It Never Was (their !K7 debut after a long run on Ninja Tune), and you can detect subtle changes, but nothing monumental. The British group's evolution has been gradual, with a predilection for hiphop (and its '60s/'70s jazz/funk foundation), whimsy, and the glamour of Connery-era James Bond flicks being the common thread.
In the early '90s, Ollie Teeba (drum programming, scratches) and Jake Wherry (programming, bass, keyboards) planted the seeds for the Herbaliser and quickly became a key crop in Ninja Tune's fertile farm of blunt-tastic funkateers and library-music junkies. Albums like Remedies and 1997's Blow Your Headphones (starring butter MC What What, aka Jean Grae) surfaced during triphop's bleary-eyed heyday, but they only bore superficial resemblance to that phenomenon. Teeba and Wherry kept things more active and lighthearted than triphop's more typical languid sensuality, though some of their tracks are pretty damned sexy (see "A Mother [for Your Mind]").
Since then, the Herbaliser have continued to grind out albums every few years with solid if unspectacular results. On 1999's Very Mercenary (with raps by Blade, Roots Manuva, and Bahamadia) and 2002's Something Wicked This Way Comes (featuring MF Doom, Phi Life Cypher, and Dilated Peoples' Rakaa Iriscience), the duo honed their hiphop production techniques to as fine a point as nearly anyone on the British scene. It's a testament to the Herbaliser's taste and skills that they could snag such highly evolved MCs as the ones noted above.
With Something Wicked This Way Comes, the Herbaliser began to incorporate samples from their own instruments; they also developed a live show that pumped up crowds with a flamboyant brass section, scintillating percussionists, and improvisational tangents that revealed all those hours listening to the Impulse! catalog hadn't been wasted.
The Herbaliser departed Ninja Tune after 2005's Take London, released a partycentric, hiphop-flavored mix disc for the vaunted FabricLive series in 2006, and then issued the extroverted, joyous Same as It Never Was in 2008. They appear to be following in the Cinematic Orchestra's formidable footsteps, going for a spectacular, big-band funk and jazz approach in order to unleash hedonistic impulses.
You have to admire the extra effort. It can't be cheap bringing overseas a seven-piece ensemble—including Winehouse/Duffy–esque vocalist Jessica Darling and the Easy Access Orchestra—although doing soundtrack work for Guy Ritchie's Snatch, PlayStation 2 game Tony Hawk's Underground, and ESPN's Sunday Night Football theme probably helps to balance the books. From orchestral funk to jock jams: Now that's versatility.