About time

Pub date March 18, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Four Tet’s music is sticky. The word works as a description of Kieran Hebden’s gluey way of making precious, melodic samples adhere to languid hip-hop beats. It also conveys that Four Tet’s sound not only bears down into your memory, it also becomes a medium for memories in its own right. To listen to Four Tet is to think about time, and Hebden has an uncanny way of illuminating the cargo that mundane details carry.

Rounds (Domino, 2003) is widely considered Four Tet’s definitive release; its slight innovation lies in refining Pause‘s (Domino, 2001) fusion of Madlib-esque, fuzz-on-the-needle beats with folky but not fey loops. The effect is major, though, a kind of déjà vu in reverse, as if Hebden amplified a previously inaudible and consequential universe. Rounds, too, runs at a fraction pf the pace of daily life: it’s the aural equivalent of a shaft of sunlight scanning your skin as you sit down to tea. Yet Rounds was a happy willed accident, if one goes by the free jazz-accented and comparatively opaque Everything Ecstatic (Domino, 2005). In the wake of these recordings, the stylistic shifts of Hebden’s recent EP, Ringer (Domino, 2008), run the risk of painting him a techno arriviste. But they result in his most deeply engaging release, one that explores Four Tet’s signature affect while calling upon greater patience and deeper listening.

Although techno can come off as a genre for soliloquists, Hebden brings the interplay and tension he developed in live and recorded collaborations with drummer Steve Reid to Ringer‘s sprawling title track. It runs a near-funky, Cluster-like synth arpeggio alongside a gold lamé string loop, splitting the difference between Kraut and Italo before dropping in an oonce oonce 4/4 beat. If you listen to the hi-hats rather than the bass drum, it’s no less rhythmically complex than an earlier, super-syncopated track like Rounds‘ "Unspoken." Lest you think Hebden’s just transposing his quirks into a new genre’s language, he presents the drone-backed heartbeat of "Swimmer," which charts an previously unimagined middle place between Donnacha Costello’s funk and Charlemagne Palestine going buck wild on a Yamaha DX-7. A very yellow song, like a prolonged burst of vitamin D into the bloodstream.

Hebden imparts an auteur’s stamp on everything he touches: Ringer never disappears into its supposed adoptive genre. It’s admirable to not abandon your audience or imprimatur, but no critic will ever label Four Tet rigorous or its pleasures hard-won. The lion’s share of this music’s appeal, after all, lies in the feeling of a generation coming into its inheritance, an uncorny merger of backpacker aesthetics and Aphex Twin-isms.

A few years from now, Four Tet might strike Web-nourished music fans as a bit middlebrow and embarrassing because of Hebden’s old-fashioned insistence on both meaning and abstraction instead of a wholesale adoption of one over the other. (A dialectic nicely embodied by Dan Deacon on one hand and Black Dice on the other.) Although Hebden’s conclusions are never facile, they aren’t particularly difficult to grasp. The number of commercials that spun off of Rounds almost reached Ratatat levels of exposure, a worrying phenomenon because both groups’ adoption of hip-hop is based on excising, along with non-PC elements, its futuristic streak. Rap doesn’t make a particularly good pillow, and its history is a little too gnarled to be adequately represented by a musty snare.

The problematic aspects of Hebden’s approach don’t detract from the real satisfaction and density of Four Tet’s music. Rounds will always evoke, for me, not just the mezzanine café of Toulouse’s XPRMNTL, a gallery/cultural clearinghouse where I first heard it over hot chocolate, but also a whole way of approaching time I’ve rarely experienced since that moment. Music that dilates the familiar into its own universe makes for a soft revelation, and I get the sense that Four Tet’s real innovation is only just starting to be understood by its audience.


with John Hopkins

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(415) 625-8880