For a guy in his mid-20s, London's Kieran Hebden has made quite the name for himself in such a short period of time. His post-rock project Fridge has released four albums and numerous EPs and singles since 1997, and many more records have been put out under his solo project called Four Tet. While Fridge puts the emphasis on more guitar-based, live music, Four Tet delves a little further into more experimental territory, with Hebden crafting all his solo albums on computer. The music he has assembled on his own over the last four years has helped create the subgenre some journalists have dubbed "folktronica", an easygoing, electronic sound that blends artificial IDM beats with more organic, pastoral, acoustic samples and melodies. Hebden was really on to something on his 2001 breakthrough album Pause, and that distinctive, cut-and-paste, yet highly accessible sound is really starting to make waves in 2003, thanks in part to Manitoba's masterful Up in Flames (whose composer Dan Snaith was discovered by Hebden), and now, Four Tet's new record, Rounds.
On the new album, Hebden shifts the focus from hip-hop beats, jazz influences, and far-reaching sonic adventurousness, to a more spare, focused sound, one that's cozier, while still breaking new ground. Opening track "Hands" starts off with two minutes of jazzy keyboard and drum inflections, as if Hebden himself is sitting down, getting ready to begin. Two minutes in, a steady, but languid beat comes in, and you start to hear rhythm in the sounds that sounded so disorganized earlier, and as the song continues, your stricken by the fact that this breath of fresh air comes from such a detached source. The following track, the single "She Moves She", boasts a more insistent rhythm track, chiming harmonies, and a melody that sounds influenced by Japanese koto music, as stuttering samples of chords try to push their way into the song, creating an odd, but ultimately comfortable give and take from the two contrasting sounds. "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth" is as sleepy as the title, as a drowsy, hypnotic, trip-hop beat drives an extended harp sample, and as various backwards samples weave their way in and out of the song midway through, it's like drifting off into REM sleep. It's really not as boring as it sounds. Trust me.
The hacked-to-bits string and xylophone samples that make up "Spirit Fingers" sound like a music box gone horribly, horribly wrong, like a scary dream you'd have right after falling asleep to "My Angel Rocks Me Back and Forth", while the terrific "As Serious as Your Life" is decidedly warmer, with its looped bass line, layers of drums, and its tasteful helpings of IDM blips and bleeps. "Slow Jam" is superb, another warm, wide-eyed, watching-the-sun-rise song that, along with "Hands", serves as a perfect bookend to the album. The chiming guitars on the track are gorgeous, and the inclusion of the sound of a child's squeaky toy only makes your smile wider.
The centerpiece on Rounds is the nine and a half minute "Unspoken", Hebden's own little epic, a scintillating pastiche of folk, jazz, and more of those loping beats. The rhythms are steady and unwavering, as a lone piano plays the same chords over and over, with myriad tinkles, hums, and psychedelic backwards tracks popping in. The piano makes way for an equally understated guitar sample, as more keyboards join in, making for an absolutely intoxicating soundscape. You hear distorted noises, hints of jazz saxophone, and ultimately, in true jazz fashion, a reprise of the initial piano vamp, bringing things full circle. This is virtuosic laptop music, Hebden's best recording to date.
Although Rounds isn't quite the jaw-dropping masterpiece that Manitoba's Up in Flames is, and despite the fact that the album lags on the meandering "And They All Look Broken Hearted", it's still a remarkable record, one that, like the work of Dan Snaith, gives a usually stale musical genre a undeniably human feel. While Snaith wildly tries anything and everything on his incredibly ambitious album, Kieran Hebden, on Rounds comes off as the more sensible older sibling, staying the course, not wavering from the path so much, and when he does decide to let it all out, it sounds so focused, so assured, like a jazz master shifting gears with ease. Sublime, computer-crafted recordings like Rounds provides in spades are making the most exciting sounds right now in 2003.