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Four Tet - Rounds

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Artist: Four Tet

Album: Rounds

Label: Domino

Review date: May. 15, 2003

An Unspoken But Evident Triumph

Since 1999, Kieran Hebden’s Four Tet project has functioned as a neat parallel to his main squeeze, the great British post-rock trio Fridge. Whereas that group focuses mainly on various rock prefixes (think Kraut- and post-), Hebden’s solo joints have thus far been trickier beasts. His debut long-player (the stunning Dialogue) took much of its influence and direction from funk, soul, and cosmic jazz. That album’s successor, the equally great Pause, traded off on traces of British folk. Despite containing a truckload of excellent music, both of these albums sounded somewhat problematic. After repeated listens, they tended to feel like calculated genre exercises more than anything else – jazz bass lines or delicately plucked acoustic guitars laced with a twee hip hop beat. Quantized boogie shoes aren’t such a bad thing, but such stylistic shifts made it tough to hear where Hebden’s current records of choice ended and his wide-reaching talents as a composer and producer began.

Rounds, his latest full-length offering, is yet another distinct chapter in Hebden’s already prolific career. It dabbles in things that made his earlier records so engaging, but at the same time distances itself from those efforts entirely. Sure enough, his newest disc sounds less like a musician drunk on Pharaoh Sanders or Shirley Collins for the first time, and more like a musical salvo from an artist who’s confidently coming into his own. Now, rather than trying to replay his roots and influences, he’s incorporating them as threads in the in the tapestry of his own rich, distinctly beautiful sound.

The beatscapes that colored the rhythms of his earlier music still exist here, but they give off less of a hip hop posture that before had seemed highly evident; they’re shown as less of a necessity and more as just another sonic color for Hebden to work with. “She Moves She” and “As Serious as Your Life” each sport tremendous rhythmic patterns, but these aren’t just a bed for a referential nod. Rather, the former track traffics in clipped strings and subtle arranging, hinting at exploding harmonies and burgeoning melodic lines while emphasizing more careful and restrained note placement that swings the proceedings. The latter thumps confidently as well, updating his Dialogue-era work with less of a kitchen-sink approach. Rather than piling on sound after sound in hope of inducing a glorious overload, he pays keen attention to basic tracks here, using simple, repetitive guitar and bass figures to match a one of the more upbeat tracks on this disc. Elsewhere, tracks like the opener “Hands” and “And They All Look Broken Hearted” invigorate his jazz leanings. He allows the rhythms to scamper and kick, layering multiple percussion tracks and thus creating an almost drunken waltz. While his earlier tendency may have been to twist these tracks into funkier beats, here Kebden gives them space to work against his wistful early morning melodies.

The highlight of the album, though, comes from a sequence of three tracks that seem less like anything Hebden has ever tried to pull off before. “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” scrapes the drums for wave-like rhythms that allow for a focus on delicate guitar and mandolin phrases. He piles on sound after sound, culminating in a climax of shimmering backwards guitars, gently plucked strings and sparse percussion that make for some of the most evocative music he’s ever created. “Spirit Fingers” is even better, setting aside the hushed moods in favor of frenetic layers of sliced-and-diced guitar and vibe sounds. The end result is gorgeously textured melody, trafficing rhythmic restraint as much as it does hyperactive acoustic guitars. The culmination of this brilliant three-song sweep comes via the nine-and-a-half minute “Unspoken”. Here, Hebden sets aside any sonic trickery. The drum track thumps a familiar hip hop beat, allowing the piano to lazily amble into another heady late-night melody. As more subtle percussive references accumulate, he flips the script quickly, taking the melody into a spacious guitar climax of undulating sound before bringing everything back down. “Unspoken” just might be the best track Hebden’s ever done, as it takes its beauty from so many different sounds and styles, blending it into one gorgeous, elongated burst. And while it does feel referential, its subtlety prevents it from ever feeling trapped in someone else’s sound.

The profound thing about Rounds comes from that fact it’s so self-assured. While in some hands this could easily translate into arrogance, in Kieran Hebden’s case it manifests itself as a cool confidence in the face of delicate proceedings. He’s taken his earlier nods to other specific genres and turned them into something wholly his own, allowing elements of jazz to dabble with folk and vice versa, all the while creating a cozy, evocative soundtrack that’s as intricate as it is beautiful.

By Michael Crumsho

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