Four Tet - Rounds
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Four Tet’s Rounds is nice. That deserves to be said before anything else. But when I say nice, I mean it as that fuzzy and vague adjective used to cover the absence of anything else discernible (e.g. “Chris is so … nice”). So an album that is often described to “humanize” electronic music must be nice, and it’s probably the only word that both the enamored and naysayer could agree with. But with an album that’s so amiable, criticism quickly becomes a chore and is one that is usually both begun and ended with a yawn. From the beginning heartbeats, Rounds is one long blur with few highs and lows, an Aphex without the drill, an Eno without the theoretical underpinning, or, in other words, pleasant background music for our future coffee shop record stores.
Kieran Hebden’s tasteful use of ambient electronic music, as well as a variety of sample sources, follows in the steps of DJ Shadow. The two artists’ work relies on fiery drum programming and readily employs the sound of the past as a focal point for their music. Whereas Shadow’s work is propelled by collaging explicit fragments of the past (described by his sampled statement of intent on “Stem Long Stem” as “the music’s coming through me”), Hebden leaves the past implied through his stylistic instrumentation.
The reliance on style to evoke the past makes Rounds fit so assuredly into the realm of ‘nostalgia music’ that Frederic Jameson probably couldn’t be bothered to take a moment away from his analysis of multinational capital to hum the little melody of “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth.” But instead of the neo-Marxist’s famous descriptions of nostalgia films’ ‘1930s-ness’ through the glossy qualities of the image or attributes of fashion, Hebden goes the other way: the harp-led “Angel” uses an implied toy-box melody to evoke these faux-memories of an earlier age.
Rounds’ use of the past circumvents the dialogue found within DJ Shadow’s sampling and instead uses it as sheen for a more digestible electronic music. The album’s variety and evocativeness of instrumentation was the reasoning behind the majority of the album’s initial praise. Hebden “humanized” electronic music by avoiding the abrasive sonic signatures of the genre, and instead digested the cyclical structures. Gone from the epic “Unspoken” to the interlude “First Thing” are any electronic sonic associations—any man-machines or any Toffler fantasies. Instead we’re given a gently plucked melody of “And They All Look Broken Hearted” surrounded by an endless flow of jazz drums. The shocking effect of electronic music is all but lost to the haze of a (non) past.
And that is folktronica. A sound too organic (friendly) to be called electronic, too warped by technology to be considered retro. However, the buzzword of 2003 has lost some shine, and has consequently followed the fate of post-rock. Folktronica’s ambiguous sieve has, in hindsight, become meaningless, with the marriage of folk and electronic techniques becoming hegemonic in light of the proliferation of digital home recording and the almighty ProTools. But whatever folktronica is, Hebden can still be the poster-child—he makes good use of his home fuckery. With the lead single, “She Moves She” the use of over-processed blasts to cut into the sluggish melody is not only descriptive of a culture of loose headphone jacks, but also reveals how playful his sonic textures can be. “Slow Jam” even builds the epic scale of a post-rock song into a cool five minutes. For such brevity, consider my hat tipped.
Despite these moments, the album has diminishing returns. With each piano line, each guitar strum set to the perfunctory drum programming, Rounds sounds like an album never changing - forever lost in its own melancholic bliss. While Rounds’ push to make electronic music more palatable, the album’s fixation on the past without any sense of engagement to history results in something akin to a wistful echo chamber. A really nice echo chamber.
By: Nate De Young
Published on: 2005-05-03