If Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, has a crowning achivement, consistency through innovation may be it. Exercising the art of tweaking, recycling, invigorating expansion, perhaps? Not since Beck, one of few other artists to be thus credited, has a musician broadened how the essence of folk music can be used. I say essence because what these artists have shown is that folk may have been a more permeating element of modern music than usually noticed. Beck took the heavy Iceland-sweatered, acoustic guitar-strumming-professor-by-the-log-cabin-fireplace and gave him indie-beaten hip-hop sneakers, and a penchant for parties inspired by ’70s psychedelia and ’90s acid wave. It was a grandiose exercise that started small (remember the brilliant, yet utterly simple debut “Loser”) and propulsed Beck to international stardom, magically endowed with an idiosyncratic mystique that begged mass appeal. But as Beck took a core genre and pulled it into new territory, Kieran Hebden is the scavenger of the corners and the cracks. He commits not to anything readily identifiable, but pulls rogue elements of folk from everything, rather than the genre itself. Which means that his folk it tainted, twitchy anhd twisted — and this is how Hebden creates his own idiosyncratically unique sound. Beck may have blurred or broken boundaries, but Hebden makes bric-a-brac puzzles.
The brilliance of this is that the pieces all fit. As Four Tet, Hebden can manage to sound like an octet, but still keep a strain of personality shrouding the music, engaging the listener magnificently. He may be jumbled, but never confused and always challenging. Hebden’s key — as opposed to Beck’s melodic catchy escapades — is drums, something that yielded his recent sublime collaboration with the jazz world’s Steve Reid. Hebden picks them out, cuts them up, stretches them and ultimately achieves a wonderful crispness that goes perfectly with his accompanying arsenal of warm folk atmospherics, spiced with spartan instrumentation and a spill of electronica clicks. This is completely adaptable, something of which this Four Tet Remixes compilation is ample evidence. Tasked with altering works of strong musical personalities, Hebden’s equally strong identity insinuates itself into every crevasse, never so much usurping as quietly enveloping, investigating, discovering, symbiotically and mutually assimilating. This makes the first CD (on which Hebden presents his favorite remixes of other artists) the best of the set, and magnificent throughout. Lars Hornveth’s “Tics” feels like staggering through a dark, dusty attic in fast motion, knocking all random objects around and over, with a hectic drum shuffle not unlike that heard when The Man From Another Place is first seen in the Black Lodge of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Unusually for an album opener, it is one of the darkest tracks. Radiohead’s “Scatterbrain” is immediately soothing, with Hebden wisely letting a beat stutter over Thom Yorke’s vocals, creating a counterbalance both inviting and invading.
Hebden comes closest to his usual Four Tet sound on the excellent vibe-tingled rendition of Aphex Twin’s “Untitled”, but he seems most proud of his work for Madvillain, dedicating two of the 12 spots to the Stones Throw eclectics. “Money Folder” has MF Doom’s lyrics on a bed of vintage videogame-style Paperboy-cum-Bubble Bubble sounds. “Great Day” is more uneven, with a Western guitar and a DJ Shadow-esque bounce that is more brilliantly rehinged on Bonobo’s “Pick up”, one of the very best tunes on offer here. In another interesting slight of genre, His Name Is Alive are more folksy in their original guise, but Hebden electrifies them in with Akufen’esque clickhouse. And Beth Orton’s trademark dry acoustics are given a light-as-air rework in the vein of Zero 7’s version of Lambchop’s “Up With People.” Whereas the first CD has carefully hand-picked Four Tet remixes from a catalogue of between 40 and 50 songs, the second disc purports to be an integral count of remixes of Four Tet songs by other artists. Many of these tracks were previously vinyl-only and deleted, providing a good incentive to buy for the non vinyl-purists. And there are high points well worth close appreciation. Jay Dee and Sa-Ra Creative Partners deliver their individual mixes with the trademark flawless musical intelligence that we have come to expect. Manitoba returns the folk favour with some of the most vibrant blue Spanish guitar long heard. Boom Bip, otherwise disappointing as of late, is at his best reworking “No More Mosquitoes” and Isambard Khroustaliov makes Hebden sound like a misty Japanese sword fight.
Whereas other artists reworking Four Tet is a mixed bag of mostly good work across more readily defined genres, Hebden’s remixes are deliciously challenging and eclectic, carrying a red thread of folk and making it irresistible to follow along. But is is a fleeting folk, an intricate variety of warmth, something constantly eluding you, but hypnotisingly so. So while you indulge in the the never-disappointing and constantly captivating mysterious forest adventure of the first CD, the second CD is best treated as a standard bonus disc, with sparkles of real light across an uneven landscape.