It’s no secret that the electronic music world has been rather quiet the last few years. After the burst of critical and (limited) commercial acclaim that rounded out the previous decade, the last half-dozen or so years have seen a general malaise in the world of bleeps and bloops, with a number of artists, DJs and producers doing stellar work but a lack of any real cohesive momentum across the board. Sure, there have been isolated movements, usually built around distinctive sounds such as Kompakt’s “microhouse” and the DFA’s rock and punk influenced dance sound, but on the whole things have been remarkably quiet.
Which is why the ascent of an artist of Four Tet’s caliber is a cause for serious celebration. The man known to his mother as Kieran Hebden has become something of a sensation in the hermetically-sealed world of electronic music, producing a large and incredibly diverse body of work in a very short period of time, producing four well-reviewed albums and a veritable avalanche of side projects, singles and remixes in the seven years since his first album, Dialogue, was released in 1999. The last couple years especially have seen him ascend the relative heights of leftfield electronic superstardom, as his disparate, disjointed and almost indescribable sound has become one of the few authentically interesting and, consequently, influential things to emerge in the current decade.
The compilation by Hebden of a volume in the estimable DJ Kicks series is definitely a notable event. Insomuch as Hebden’s sound is unassailably unique, his DJ Kicks is also a rather indescribable experience. Eclecticism is the order of the day. On the one hand, I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as too much eclecticism, and that the connections and unexpected conjunctions between disparate forms of music are one of the most important stories in modern music. Anyone who has ever heard Four Tet knows that Hebden agrees, to judge from the incredibly wide-ranging field of influences from which he draws. Sure enough, this disc presents as succinct a distillation of the undistillable as possible: in the space of four tracks, Hebden proceeds from a dub plate of the So Solid Crew’s “Dillema” to Akufen’s “Psychometry 3.2” to the Animal Collective’s “Baby Dry” to the 101 Remix of Madvillain’s “Figaro”. From UK garage/proto-grime to glitch house to freak folk to the vanguard of American indie hip-hop, Hebden covers all the bases, and listening to his music it’s actually possible to see where all of these tracks — which seemingly could not be less related — fit into the story of Hebden’s sound.
As you might expect, though, that’s part of the problem. In Hebden’s own production, all these diverse influence somehow add up to something greater than the sum of their individual parts; but when his sound is sprawled across more than an hour of a mix CD, cut up into its many varied components and influences, it doesn’t hang together anywhere near as well. It may seem slightly hypocritical of me to accuse the CD of sounding too diverse, considering how often I’ve lambasted the lack of diversity and originality on the part of DJs across the spectrum. But there’s diversity and then there’s schizophrenia, and the preponderance of the latter keeps this CD from becoming more than just a killer mix tape. Because, yeah, it’s great to have Curtis Mayfield (“If I Were Only a Child Again”), Model 500 (the deliriously loopy “Psychosomatic”) and Cabaret Voltaire (“Kneel to the Boss”) on one disc, and it certainly reveals a lot about Hebden’s sound that Four Tet fans will find fascinating, but on its own it fails to add up to more. Good, but not great.