Matthew Herbert: Plat du jour

Imagine The Beach Boys' “Vegetables” updated for the sampling era, extended to hour-long form, and most importantly informed by impassioned political awareness, and the result might sound something like Plat du Jour, Matthew Herbert's blistering critique of the food industry, dysfunctional eating habits, and consumer titans like Starbucks and McDonald's (in his own words, we have “handed over control of what goes in to our bodies to faceless transnational companies, operating in a geographical no-man's land”). Western society in particular is experiencing a disturbing rise in obesity alongside a corresponding fanaticism for dieting fads. Astutely recognizing its topical relevance, Herbert spent two years researching the project and six months recording it. The result is, conceptually at least, a rich addition to what has become a staggeringly huge discography.

Seemingly every food choice is fraught with complication. He asks, “(A)t a restaurant, do you choose white bread, which may be nutritionally poorer for you than brown bread, or do you choose brown bread which contains five times the amount of pesticide residues?” Herbert ultimately identifies oil and the impact its consumption has on food ingestion as the evil root (e.g., transporting food from overseas generates planet-warming carbon dioxide from plane engines and contributes to crop failure and environmental alteration). In addition to providing an almost indigestible smorgasbord of background detail (archived at, he creates a sonic complement to the thematic by constructing tracks from samples and field recordings of water bottles (“These Branded Waters”), coffee cups and jars (the almost industrial, pulsating “An Empire of Coffee”), a Coke can (the stomping mechano-funk workout “Hidden Sugars”), even the London sewers (the percussion-heavy “Waste Land,” with its whale-like moaning and thunder noises). Generated from field recordings of 30,000 broiler chickens, 24,000 chicks, and 40 free-range chickens, recorder-like melodies, ostinato bass lines (generated from a pitch-shifted 'cheep') and bell percussion coalesce into downtempo soul-jazz in “The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialized Chicken”; unfortunately, an overbearing wealth of chicken noise clutters the sound, a tendency towards excess that recurs elsewhere. A heavy percussive emphasis dominates much of the material, the lumbering clatter-funk of “Fatter, Slimmer, Faster, Slower” a typical case in point. On principle, Herbert samples found sounds and natural materials rather than recorded material.

In the end, the impression Plat du Jour leaves is largely dependent on whether the listener broaches it as a pure listening experience or as an aural manifesto. “Nigella, George, Tony, and Me,” for instance, lays bare Herbert's political leanings (“We recreated the meal that Nigella Lawson cooked for George Bush when he came to Britain to thank Tony Blair for his support during the Iraq war, then we drove over the meal with a Chieftan MK 10 battle tank from the mid-to-late ‘60s”). But while Plat du Jour is a provocative and certainly timely work by a true original, on a purely musical level the collection is distinguished by a single great song, “Celebrity” (created entirely from food endorsed by celebrities or tied to a marketing strategy), with the remainder serviceable, despite the fascinating background associated with each song. “Celebrity” towers over the others, due largely to Dani Siciliano's arresting vocal which, especially in the chorus (“Always felt like selling something/Guess it might as well be myself/Just gotta find something that I stand for/For this love”), brings a sexy dimension to the track's basic funkiness. So, yes, Siciliano's cheerleader shout “Go David/Go Victoria/Go Beyoncé/Go Beyoncé” may be laced with vitriol (at the Beckham's insatiable appetite for material acquisition and Destiny's Child's endorsement of McDonald's, for example) but that doesn't diminish the strength of the hook. Still, while its range of sound sources is inarguably remarkable, the audacious Plat du Jour ultimately impresses more on conceptual rather than musical grounds.

August 2005