The Herbaliser

Same as It Never Was

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Usually the grooviest and most hip-hop connected of Ninja Tune's acts, the Herbaliser gradually matured into a supremo live band, led by the duo of Ollie Teeba and Jake Wherry but also encompassing dozens of support slots for brass, woodwinds, and percussionists, plus the usual plugged-in instruments. Still, the Herbaliser isn't a chamber ensemble per se, but instead the type of funky big band prominent in the '70s, the kind that could drop a blaxploitation or disco nugget one minute and get all funky over "Sunny" the next. Same as It Never Was, their first record for !K7, is in similar company to Herbaliser's previous Take London from 2005. It's delivered with the help of an excellent roster of musicians; tenor saxman Chris Bowden, bassist Pino Palladino, and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Ross all make multiple appearances. The sound and productions are definitely up to the Herbaliser standard, but the duo may lose a few listeners when they exercise their funny bones, as they do several times here. Instead of hitting at street level, they spend a lot of time indulging in camp instrumentals like "The Next Spot" and "Amores Bongo" (it's not "Sunny," but it's close). As Herbaliser have done since their debut, they excel at bringing vocal features to life; here it's the Jean Grae guest spot "Street Karma (A Cautionary Tale)," with its eerie blaxploitation shadings. Other highlights come with "Can't Help This Feeling" and "On Your Knees," both featuring vocals by the leather-lunged soul-blues belter Jessica Darling. (Obviously Herbaliser have been at it for years, but it's difficult not to hear her and think of Amy Winehouse or Sharon Jones.) There's no doubting the Herbaliser's ability to deliver exactly what they're attempting, but despite the excellent playing and good vocal features (when they occur), the songwriting and choice of material make this record inferior to the usual Herbaliser standard.

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