The latest in a string of rather transparently and deliberately Odd Couple duo records, NYC sees Four Tet digital brainiac Kieran Hebden’s usual glittery flourishes buddy up to sexagenarian jazz drummer Steve Reid for a set that must rank among the most challenging listening material either has ever produced. On the surface, their records together are generally too messy and formless for even your average Four Tet fan, almost like a like a whole album’s worth of the aimless Mars Volta interludes. NYC then ups the artsyfartsyness ante even further by thematically tying each song to a specific location in New York, insofar as that can be done with abstract cyclical sound-art: “25th Street”, “1st and 1st”, and so on. Curiously enough, “Arrival” and “Departure” aren’t the album’s endcaps, as their titles might lead you to believe; instead, they surround “Between B&C”, a sparkles-and-guitar loop which sounds like an outtake from Pause and is far and away the album’s highlight.
Reid and Hebden have made several albums together by now, including the excellent Tongues in 2007. Those sea legs seem to have a mighty short half-life, though: Reid’s creative phrasing and pulse games are, as always, a fascinating contrast to the rigid rhythmic grids typical of Four Tet constructions, but on NYC the pair doesn’t seem to find a happy middle ground anywhere. With Reid on tap, ready to dive in headfirst with limbs flailing and very few responsibilities, you almost have to wonder whether Hebden just found himself in over his head; the album may have been considerably more focused if Hebden had sampled Reid’s performances and woven them in as loops. But that would defeat the whole point of the project, now wouldn’t it?
Probably, but it would have also put its crucial flaw to bed. A number of Hebden’s most compelling pieces as Four Tet start with the thumping of a lone bass drum or the cautious clicking of a hi-hat sample, only building to the sort of Taurined-out pitter-patter-slosh of something like “Sun Drums and Soil” after a fairly lengthy expository period. Here, largely due to Reid’s presence—specifically, his sense of texture and Hebden’s apparent competitive desire to goad his MacBook into keeping pace from the get-go—the joy of hearing the motifs evolve is gone. The fundamental appeal of a Four Tet record comes from being able to a newtish melody clamber out of the primordial synth goo and turn into a bona fide T. Rex techno-headbanger within six to eight minutes.
Perhaps thanks to the nervous misgivings each had for the other earlier in the working relationship, Tongues still had that delightfully chaotic Lewis and Clark factor intact, even if its lines were decidedly less pop. NYC is too comfortable in comparison; the anti-themes hatch fully grown and then just sit around looking at you with beady little eyes that seem to say “All hail my avant-gardeness.” Where’s the fun in that? Darwin is way more fun than Intelligent Design.