Various Artists: Check the Water

[9 March 2006]

By Nate Dorr

Back in the spring of 2003, IDM rising stars Prefuse 73, Caribou (then still “Manitoba”), and Four Tet went on a U.S. tour together, each supporting a new (or soon to be released) album.  No, I never actually saw this all-star line-up together.  I was in Vermont at the time.  I do not think they played in Vermont.  And at the time, without the benefit of hindsight, I might not have known how excited I should have been.  But I read about the tour, vaguely noted it, remembered it, and then watched in astonishment as those three bands put out three of the finest electronic albums of 2003.  Each was manipulated, meticulously arranged, and startlingly seamless when it wanted to be.  This was IDM emerging from a general period of being as jarring and alien as possible and being transmuted into an organic form, fresh green shoots springing from robotic chest cavities and assuming control.

Yes, I’m generalizing pretty strongly here and I am aware of it, but the point stands.  These three bands, each with an influential new album (for those following at home, those were Caribou’s Up in Flames, Four Tet’s Rounds, and Prefuse’s One Word Extinguisher), together helped to nudge future IDM back towards warmer territory, and away from some of the cold, distant stereotypes the genre has long suffered.

Of those three seminal bands, Caribou and Four Tet had both by then released work with London’s Leaf record label, and both contribute tracks to Leafs new 10-year retrospective, Check the Water.  And now, visiting the label’s back catalogue for the first time through that compilation, I see that the organic electronic forms those acts unveiled in 2003 were not without precedent:  many of their compatriots on Leaf had been working in such directions all along.  This set positively bleeds acoustic warmth.

The two-disc compilation divides cleanly by era:  disc one covers the years 1995 to 2001, and disc two takes on 2002 to the present.  Part one opens with some early 12” tracks, sinuous trip-hop and atmospheric drum and bass, before striking its first truly original example, The Sons of Silence’s illbient jazz opus “A Grain of Sand”.  The track builds universes from pebbles, and builds up its own composition in much the same way, gradually layering crisp percussion and squealing horn solos to a thrilling peak.  With its cacophonous jazz inflection, this song comes off like a slightly more daring, less hip-hop concerned Ninja Tune, a comparison that may be extended to much of the material here.  Other gems include first-ever Four Tet release “Field”, Rob Ellis’ room-full-of-broken-toys “Symphonies of Wind Up Instruments”, and early Caribou b-side “Tits and Ass: The Great Canadian Weekend”.

The more contemporary disc two follows through on the expectation of variety and quality set up by the first.  Opener Mir could perhaps be characterized as “jittery chamber quartet”, Boom Bip and MC Doseone team up for some Anticon-styled hip-hop, and Colleen pulls out one of her most eerily pretty collages.  Icarus, a band I have admittedly passed by before, reclaims my attention through an unpredictable horn solo squirming over meticulous beeps and clicks.  Triosk manages an almost Squarepusher-esque (circa Music Is Rotted One Note) dissonant jazz groove.  A Hawk and a Hacksaw surprises with a mournful folk ballad.

Over the past decade, Leaf has put out an impressive, eclectic range of organic electronic music, much of which, I realize now, was wholly unfamiliar to me.  I suspect that the same is true of many other potential listeners as well.  Fortunately, the comprehensive Check the Water is out now in both the U.S. and Europe, providing rapid remedy for this state of affairs.  While the compilation covers quite a range of artists and music, they’re unified by an often-ahead-of-its-time organic approach that will find immediate appeal with fans of contemporary work from the likes of Four Tet and Caribou.  At this rate, let’s hope for another 10 years.

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