A decade ago I was pretty convinced that London group the Herbaliser had figured out how to make downtempo hip-hop more exciting than the wallpaper. Jake Wherry and Ollie Teeba made urgent, varied beats, worked with interesting, intelligent MCs, and used live instruments for more than just window dressing. Some of their records were lean and sparse and some were jazzed up with guest musicians, but all of them were idiosyncratic and satisfying combinations of the best elements of the band’s influences.

The Herbaliser’s new Same as It Never Was (K7) is indeed a change for them, and while I appreciate it when musicians push themselves out of their comfort zones, in this case the effort has resulted in the group’s least compelling album. Though Wherry and Teeba employ ranks of musicians to flesh out their funky grooves, alternating between instrumentals and songs that feature either young soul singer Jessica Darling or veteran MCs like Jean Grae (who’s worked with the group since back when she was known as What What), for the first time they’ve lost their magic touch with the hip-hop breaks that have always been the music’s bedrock. Same as It Never Was just sounds like second-rate funk, with the occasional bit of turntable scratching and a kitschy nod to soundtrack work by David Axelrod or John Barry here and there.

The Herbaliser make a rare local appearance Tuesday night at Darkroom, and despite my reservations about the new album I think it’ll be a good time–after all, they were one of the few 90s acts on Ninja Tune that could put on a live show. They’re touring as a five-piece band with Darling in tow.

Today’s playlist:

Perunika Trio, Introducing (Introducing)
Bobo Stenson Trio, Cantando (ECM)
Various Artists, Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics (1918-1955) (Dust-to-Digital)
John McNeil & Bill McHenry, Rediscovery (Sunnyside)
Maximum Joy, Unlimited (1979-1983) (Crippled Dick Hot Wax)