Four Tet, Pole, and Built to Spill
1 February 1999
That Kieran Hebden’s Four Tet project could ever be charged with spearheading the insipidly-named folktronica movement is far from apparent on his debut full length Dialogue, though he does seem to be moving music forward a couple essential steps. Unlike most folk music, or electronic music of the time for that matter, Dialogue was fluid and loose, unguarded and, yes, organic. Even with such a stunning and phantasmagoric mix of freeform psychedelic noodling and rusty groove basslines, it’s hard to deny the preeminence of Hebden’s beat science on the album. It was those meticulous rhythmic cues, informed by his membership in post-rockers Fridge—though hardly expected even from those who knew that band, which made the album take on the unique shape it did. It culled free-jazz, psychedelic, raga, prog, hip-hop, fusion, indie, exotica, and beyond into a free-associative amalgamation that sounded like a family reunion wherein you could trace the genetic makeup of all those styles back to a single ancestry.
The landscape of music in the years that followed the release of the album seems to have formed in its underbelly. Even if not directly influenced by Dialogue, it’s easy to see its reflection in the woozy hard-drumming blue sunshine of Manitoba/Caribou’s “Up in Flames”, or the whimsical flutter of vintage jazz reimagined as 22nd century astral beat voyages for Madlib and the like (the late J Dilla would later remix Four Tet). Even the ecstatic tribal drumming and strange woodland/woodwind noises of tracks like “3.3 Degrees from the Pole” (built on a trance-like loop from Roxy Music’s “2HB” to add another influence to the pot) have echoes in the freakiest of folk being put out today, like Sunburned Hand of the Man, who had one album produced by Hebden. Ultimately, though, Dialogue stands as a singularity, both in Hebden’s own catalogue and in the music world in general. That it came at the end of the 20th century, typifying the abstractions of the past couple decades and signaling what was to come, is simply the icing on this delectable multilayered cake. Timothy Gabriele
1 February 1999
The middle chapter of Stefan Betke’s trilogy of seminal ambient dub albums is also the shortest one, which means that it, and not 1, is the best place for novices to start. Although the three albums do differ, Pole’s sound is such that the differences are all but invisible to anyone beyond already-committed fans. Certainly the staticky pops, crackles, and bass pulses of 2 are a little more active than the almost parodically withdrawn 1, and given the lack of variation in Betke’s sound, 2’s brief running time and unusually sprightly tracks make it the most palatable. Betke started working as Pole after he was gifted with a damaged Waldorf 4-Pole filter—Betke was interested enough in the glitchy, cracked end of dub techno that the hissing and popping the filter now produced were turned from a defect into not just a virtue, but a production aesthetic.
The nine-minute “Fahren”, which opens 2, should give any listener more than enough material to figure out whether Betke’s uncompromising style is for them. If early Pole is a dub of anything, it’s a dub of broken machinery, and it sounds like it. But there’s a reason Betke’s first three records are still lauded by the type of people who lionize Basic Channel, Deepchord, and Gas: the furiously twitching (for the genre) “Streit” and the hazy “Hafen” are pretty much as compelling as ambient dub gets, and for converts that’s very compelling indeed. Most listeners who find Betke’s work intriguing probably don’t need to go beyond this brief record, but that’s part of what makes 2 so great. Ian Mathers
2 February 1999
Built to Spill
Keep It Like a Secret
On the family tree of Northwest rock music, Built to Spill may not be godfathers, but they are certainly the cool uncles, mixing drinks in the kitchen while the party takes place on the patio. This splendid Boise, Idaho, band spent most of the 1990s quietly drafting the blueprint for the Northwest Sound (their DNA residue is evident in the strains of Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and other crucial Northwest bands), closing the decade with Keep It Like a Secret, ten tracks of gangly, melodic delight.
Keep It Like a Secret works at once as a firm handshake to new listeners and a warm embrace for disciples, an amalgam of the crisp, clever structures demonstrated on 1993’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love and the gorgeous, languid sprawl of 1996’s Perfect From Now On. Meandering guitar lines wander into infectious choruses, propulsive rhythms demand sympathetic movement of appendages (tapping feet, pumping fists, air drumming, etc.), beguiling lyrics offer literate, coherent documentation of incoherent events (or perhaps vice versa)—the record secured Built to Spill’s status as demigods of the indie set, even as skeptics dismissed them as a stoner mutation of Dinosaur Jr.
Ten years later, the album still defies easy placement into a genre, sounding as vibrant today as it did on the day of its release. Perhaps the band’s fusion of muscle and melody will elicit the raising of one eyebrow instead of two from some listeners, but Keep It Like a Secret remains a stellar document from a seminal Northwest band, and a sonic pleasure in the present tense. Bill Reagan
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