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May 17, 2002

++ Room Tones

++ Everyone's got a favorite album to wash dishes to. A favorite album to clean house to. A favorite album to fold laundry to.

Pop music's a domestic thing. Albums may be marketed with images of the smoky rock club, the stadium, the open road, the disco, but at the end of the day most of us do most of our listening at home, while we do those other things we do at home. We cook. We clean. We drink wine with our partners. We read the newspaper, change the cat litter, towel off in the bathroom, muss the bed, make the bed.

Matthew Herbert's Around the House — released on his own label Soundslike in 1998 and reissued this spring by !K7 — is a tribute to exactly these moments. In fact it's made, at least in part, of these very moments.

Herbert gained wide acclaim for his unorthodox sampling techniques on his 2001 record Bodily Functions (!K7), in which he asked friends and fans to contribute recordings of their own bodily functions — gurgling stomachs, clacking teeth, rustling hair — which he knit into a profoundly intimate album about identity and human relationships. Bodily Functions was the first album in which Herbert set out the terms of his Personal Contract for the Composition of Music — a manifesto dictating what, and how, he may sample — but even on Around the House he'd begun experimenting with unconventional sound sources, snatched from the fabric of everyday life.

++ Everyday life: the very phrase conjures something essential, a sphere untrammeled by the detritus of commercialism and commodification. I suppose you could argue the opposite, that the quotidian essence is wrapped up in supermarkets and cable TV and the drudgery of the nine-to-five. In the sonic lexicon of Herbert, though, the idea of everyday life suggests a refuge. There's no product placement, no image management, no value-add, no synergy or cross-sell. Indeed, although it's a house record, it's tailored for staying in, all cushioned beats and soft edges.

If most house music is sequins and spandex and covetable denim — or, in its more authentic guise, bare skin and sweat-slicked pates — Around the House is flannel and goosedown. There are no spotlights in this house. No gratuitous headshots of the artist or the musicians. Indeed, in the opening track, "So Now...," Dani Siciliano exhorts the listener again and again to "dim the lights," as though the music might otherwise shrink from the glaring strobes of the public sphere.

Herbert's music is instantly recognizable for its signature chug — his drum patterns typically eschew conventional drum sounds in favor of reconfigured clatter of uncertain provenance. Around the House, appropriately enough, throbs with percussive thwacks and thuds carved from the soundtrack of domestic life: clanging cutlery, slamming doors, footsteps on hardwood floors. Some of these sources are merely my best guesses; the signatures of his samples swim in and out of focus, morphing from naked sonic icon (the sound of scattering cutlery, say, or a door buzzer) to indistinct din, to the crisp mimicry of a hi-hat or a snare drum.

But the magic of the record — Herbert's Web site, by the way, is called Magic and Accident, after his love of the aleatory — is in the way these unsentimental elements are woven into something much more lyrical and expressive. The jazz elements that defined Bodily Functions are here in sketchbook form, especially on the deep blue chords of "Close to Me" and the expansive, open-ended "The Last Beat" (re-recorded for Bodily Functions). Herbert's housey touch colors the rhythms, but there are no straightforward dancefloor tracks here — the closest thing is the single "Going Round," which walks the fine line between flirtation and submission, carried by Siciliano's coyly commanding vocals. Siciliano is Herbert's romantic as well as artistic partner, and as always, her performance infuses Herbert's music with a startling intimacy.

++ The 12-minute long "In the Kitchen," which takes up an entire side of vinyl, hints at Herbert's cinematic talents (he's recently worked on a number of soundtracks and scores, including a musical being co-produced by Pedro Almodovar). Listening to it is akin to walking through the darkened halls of some long-abandoned house. As you wind through the cobwebbed corridors, trailing your palms along the walls, the sounds of its former inhabitants rustle in the wallpaper, rippling into the whorls of your fingertips: kitchen sounds, scuffling furniture, the slap of a slamming drawer.

Oddly, there are almost no echoes of human voices here, save for Siciliano's contributions — no recovered conversations, no whispers under the covers. In the absence of a subject, Herbert's house-and-home music, for all its utopian drive, can sound incredibly mournful. In the closing "We Go Wrong," the song opens with a ghostly answering message: "...Where are you? Pick up the phone... Hello, hello, hello? ...Hello... Come on, pick up the phone..." The woman's voice swirls in a fog of static dyed the same faint lavender as her voice, as though in this house of sounds and spirits, the very color of the walls had been tuned to the timbre of its faintest memories.


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