oll up, roll up! Ladies and gentlemen, people of all ages, witness the Artist! HEAR him sample 723 different things on Scale! SEE his manifesto! CRINGE at his contention that every release is a “concept album”! REALIZE that all this conceptual stuff doesn't even come close to affecting the way most of us will listen to this music!
Sure, there may be a few listeners who are going to pore over Scale obsessively, notepad and pencil always at hand, cataloging everything they hear in an effort to tell which is the sound of a sampled RAF bomber and which is some poor soul being sick outside of a banquet. But if you were hearing Matthew Herbert's newest project without having read the press release first you almost certainly wouldn't notice that this was made with anything other than fairly standard instruments and beats and a talented producer, aside from the digital blur of voices on the depressive “Just Once” (using bits of all 177 messages left on a phone line Herbert set up, how exciting!). Because, see, unlike his Matmosian (in concept, if not necessarily in execution) Plat du Jour, Herbert is here explicitly and self-consciously trying to make something more song-oriented, more… pop.
So the problem we have here is that Scale is a record that is trying to work on two levels and they never really interact or reinforce each other satisfactorily. Sonically this is fairly reminiscent of Herbert's production work on Roisin Murphy's Ruby Blue, and when it succeeds it really connects: “Something Isn't Right” starts the album off with a bang, and “Harmonize” makes perfect sense as half of the first single, boasting one of the album's best vocal performances from Herbert's muse Dani Siciliano. “Down” half works; the faux-sexy interludes at the beginning clash pretty harshly with the luxurious, swooping latter parts, and it's hard not to wish Herbert had separated them somehow. And while “Moving Like a Train” occasionally builds up some momentum, it moves more like a recalcitrant Slinky, getting stranded between steps until it's nudged forward again. It's got what seems like a big, brassy chorus near the beginning but that energy gets frittered away with too much repetition and not enough punch near the end.
It's “The Movers and Shakers,” accompanying “Harmonize” as the other half of the double A-side, that first points towards Herbert's weaknesses this time out. Whether or not you agree with his aim of deposing Bush and Blair and so on and so on, the lyrics fall into the old trap of being both nebulous and thuddingly obvious (“No time to grieve or think about / Plans to search for grace, investigate / How this holy mess could generate love at war”). Similarly the song somehow manages to be simultaneously both light as air so that it never really grabs you and yet didactic enough to be slightly grating while it's actually playing. Much of the music here partakes to some degree of the classy, vaguely jazzy atmosphere Herbert conjures up with his Big Band, but when the songs themselves aren't compelling it just makes for nicer gilding on a sadly absent lily.
Not that “The Movers and Shakers” is ever less than pleasant, the damnably faint praise that you can easily tar all of Scale with. To be fair, of all the music likely to be in heavy rotation in especially trendy coffeehouses, this is very close to the upper echelon in terms of quality—but the vast majority of the material here is also deeply forgettable. I've listened to Scale at least a dozen times today alone, and until I looked at the case I'd forgotten that it has a track called “Birds of a Feather.” I do vaguely recall “Movie Star”—or rather, being annoyed by its lyrics.
So we've got pop music too lightweight to do much more than fancy up the background and a conceptual underpinning, that, due to the seamless way it's blended into these songs, is near imperceptible. Plat du Jour needed careful perusal of the associated website to really wring all the meaning out the samples, but they're so carefully pureed into Scale that even a similar setup would yield minimal returns; nothing here really makes you curious about the composition. There are far worse sins than making an album of light, frothy, eminently disposable pop, but maybe next time Herbert could return to either the audibly conceptual rigour of Plat du Jour or the purer pop thrills of Ruby Blue to leave us something to remember him by.