"Funky" isn't the first word that comes to mind when the subject is England. ("Bad teeth", maybe, or "warm beer".) Fighting the good fight is Ninja Tune, a London-based label with a sterling reputation (no pun intended) for releasing some of the finest and most eccentric beat-based music in the world. Something Wicked This Way Comes
-- the fourth album from this production duo and live instrumentation posse -- maintains Ninja's tradition of strict quality standards with a surprising, fun slice of jazz-funk. Core members Ollie Teeba and Jake Wherry came together as The Herbaliser ten years ago, and in a decade that's seen more than one sea change in the world of electronic music, they've never forgotten that it's songs, not flash, that last.
Something Wicked builds on the group's previous releases, relying less on found samples and more on their own musical constructions, both live and pre-recorded (sampling themselves, in effect). A winning combination of hip-hop beats, horns, strings and cinematic soundscapes (such as the spy-story workout "24 Carat Blag"), the album is spiced with precise scratching and effectively abrupt changes in direction. After a long, lush introduction, "Mr. Holmes" morphs into a lightly jazzy, early-'70s piece of the Blaxsploitation pie; one of the best cuts, "Worldwide Connected", raises in pitch from a nursery rhyme juggle to a powerful symphonic sweep. The closing "Unsungsong" adds a dollop of the blues to The Herbaliser's palette.
With such a compellingly varied backdrop to work with, it's the MCs that steal Something Wicked's show. Dilated People's Iriscience rides the cut-and-scratch cartoon nods of "Verbal Animé", a cut that wouldn't be out of place on Om's groundbreaking Deep Concentration series. With the convincing pyrotechnics of an English Rakim, underground London rapper Blade rolls like a subway train through the twisting tunnels of "Time 2 Build" ("You can have it if you want it / If you want it bad enough / Then you can get it / Don't sweat it just let it / Take control of your soul /And let it roll / As the story unfolds / The prophecy is told"). After a sampled '50s TV introduction ("She's beautiful, she's smart, she's a fighting hellcat, she's dynamite!"), Wildflower's multitracked vocals take over "Good Girl Gone Bad", with a lilting, accent-inflected flow that namechecks Lee "Scratch" Perry and rhymes about the "voodoo that she do". Best of all is the penultimate "It Ain't Nuttin'", featuring veteran KMD rapper MF Doom sporting his usual blunted, free-associative linguistic gymnastics.
Innovative without sacrificing head-bobbing musicality, each moment of Something Wicked is packed with energy, rarely settling into the kind of loping mid-tempo groove that clutters too many of The Herbaliser's down-tempo and trip-hop peers. Like Run-DMC's famous admonition that the definition isn't "'bad' meaning 'bad' but 'bad' meaning 'good'", "wicked" in this case means an angelic mix of all that's good about contemporary music.