Matthew Herbert’s fabulous Scale is elevated by two things in particular: his talent for dressing songs in marvelous, full-bodied arrangements (sometimes evoking the rich string sound of ‘70s Philly soul, but more often the splendor of lush Hollywood scores and Broadway musicals) and, secondly, his full deployment of secret weapon Dani Siciliano (who sings on all but one song, Herbert reserving the piano ballad closer “Wrong” for his own self-described ‘croak’). Of course, this being a Herbert project, it shouldn’t surprise that beneath the immaculate veneer lies troubling subject matter (meditations on mortality, global suffering, and the end of the oil age) and unusual sound sources (meteorites, golf swings, cars, breakfast cereal, coffins, petrol pumps, and an RAF Tornado bomber are among the 723 objects sampled, not to mention the 177 phone messages worked into “Just Once”). But the songs! More reminiscent of accessible releases like 2001’s Bodily Functions than experimental excursions like last year’s Plat du Jour and 2002’s Radio Boy project The Mechanics of Destruction, Scale presents sumptuous fusions of vocal house, jazz, disco, and soul that strike a convincing balance between intricacy and sensuality.
Whereas Herbert didn’t use a single traditional instrument on Plat du Jour, he perpetuates Goodbye Swingtime’s opulent sound on Scale with the luxuriant potential of a chamber orchestra fully exploited. It takes mere seconds for the album’s smooth vibe to declare itself when Siciliano, Neil Thomas, and Jade Fox member Dave Okumu weave vocals—separate and unison—over a string-kissed groove in “Something Isn’t Right.” A soulful pulse drives the horn-laden “The Movers and Shakers,” a remarkable example of Herbert’s arranging talents, though admittedly there’s a good amount of extraneous noise that could’ve been excluded. On “Those Feelings,” Herbert bridges the experimental with the accessible more convincingly, the listener less aware of the song’s subtle patterning when entranced by Siciliano’s silken vocal. Elsewhere, her multi-tracked chirp enriches a funk groove in “Moving Like a Train” and turns torch-like during the jittery strut “Harmonise.” Though the song’s enticing “up and down” hook is captivating, you’ll be even more won over when this remarkable chanteuse later croons “You are the world / I am your people” at song’s end.