Calling something a return to form usually feels like a backhanded compliment. It generally implies that an artist has somehow lost his way, that the quality of his output lowered enough to be considered a slump. Or, the phrase can be used by a reviewer assuming the subtly egotistical role of the school teacher, rewarding the artist for getting back in line after misbehaving (encouraging the least risky music is as common a crime of this profession as it is of the charts).
So instead of saddling Matthew Herbert's Scale with the burden, let's call his first straight-ahead dance record since 2001's Bodily Functions what it really is: one of the best dance records of the decade. After his excellent big-band excursion with 2003's Goodbye Swingtime, Herbert recorded Plat du Jour, an ambitious project that succeeded intellectually much more than musically. Scale is its superior for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that none of the anger and frustration with contemporary politics is missing; in fact, it comes over better on this record. On "The Movers and the Shakers," Herbert's long-time collaborator Dani Siciliano sings, "I just don't know how to bring about your downfall/ damn fool/ go figure out/ how those Christian boys can orchestrate/ Shock and Awe." Elsewhere, the record tries to make sense of a world where there is so much injustice. Yet none of it sounds preachy or obvious. Upon first listen, opener "Something Isn't Right" seems like it's about a relationship, but it could just as easily be about the state of the world.
Musically, the record is a complete success. With heavy disco influences and none of the sappy deep-house vibe that made the second half of Bodily Functions (slightly) falter, the record rewards both the dance-floor crowd and the headphone geek. "Moving Like a Train" is straight old-school soul-inflected house with the strings to back it up. Every song is carefully structured and artfully arranged; even the six-minute sound collage of "Just Once" shimmers underneath the surface in a perfect tone.
Herbert's Scale is everything that was great about the disco underground: soulful vocals, progressive politics and smart party music. But it's also very much a product of its time, both aware of its surroundings and focused on its influences. If it isn't a major shift in dance music, it's a perfect demonstration of the best the genre has to offer in 2006, bereft of the watered-down genre-bending that has, both positively and negatively, informed the past few years. A lean, focused record, Scale is Herbert's best record to date, and a must-buy for any dance-music fan.
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