Album Review: Beautiful Rewind

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Four Tet - Beautiful Rewind: Four Tet, a.k.a. British producer Kieran Hebden, has been a vanguard of emotive electronica since his 2003 breakout Rounds. On that record, he created a sample-based potpourri of jazz, hip-hop, and folk that came to embody “folktronica,” a genre tag Hebden has been working to shed ever since. Recent Four Tet releases have leaned heavily on the 4/4 kick of house and techno; nearly every track on 2010’s brilliant There Is Love in You thumped with a confident momentum, graceful in its presentation of each sonic idea. Meanwhile, the 2012 singles compilation Pink offered several undeniable “bangers” that paired Hebden’s keen ear for melody with floor-filling rhythmic aggression.

With Beautiful Rewind, the Four Tet sound takes another left turn into thornier territory, swapping the emotional nakedness of There Is Love in You for something more guarded and mysterious. The shift is immediately apparent in the opening seconds of “Gong,” where a submerged jungle rhythm and messy chimes are deployed without grace or fanfare; it sounds like the needle’s been dropped mid-track. A male voice enters the mix – what the hell is he saying? “It knows broccoli”? This is not the elegant introduction that “Angel Echoes” was, where the curtain is gradually pulled back to reveal Hebden’s machine in all its glory, sighing with melancholy splendor. The purpose of “Gong” is to disorient and confront the listener, recalibrating expectations for the music that follows. It’s far from the best “choon” on the album, but it is perhaps the most bracing.

None of this is to say that Beautiful Rewind lacks the emotional catharsis that characterizes Four Tet’s best work; that word “beautiful” is awful hefty, especially when someone like Hebden attaches it to his own record. “Parallel Jalebi” is an early jaw-dropper, anchored by a popping gated synth that operates as both melodic and rhythmic foundation. The track’s cream filling comes in the form of an undulating female vocal suffused with yearning; the sample is layered on top of itself several times over and draws its energy from within, a waterfall changing character from moment to moment. The bubbly, slippery “Ba Teaches Yoga” evokes the Great Barrier Reef in full bloom. “Unicorn” is the sound of angels plucking harps to send rain hurtling down to Earth (these water-based analogies are coming, nay, FLOWING so naturally right now).

That comfortable beauty, however, comprises only one side of this fascinating coin. In stark contrast to the mannered and precise nature of most Four Tet compositions, large portions of Beautiful Rewind are relentlessly claustrophobic, even panicked. The shift is most evident in Hebden’s choice of samples this time around, with bits of pirate radio chatter taking precedence over pitch-shifted R&B divas. The finest example of this aesthetic is “Aerial”, a six-minute workout punctuated by African percussion and sickly bursts of arpeggios that sound downright sinister. After 3 minutes and 10 seconds of restless transformation, the track settles into a furious 4/4 groove centered on an unintelligible spoken-word sample that is nonetheless beguiling as a rhythmic component. Although you’d expect Hebden to continue shifting his puzzle pieces around for the remaining 2:30, he instead hangs back and lets the loop cycle again and again. It’s a testament to his restraint - even as he plunges further and further into uncharted territory, he can still recognize when he’s struck gold in the unlikeliest of places.

Hebden has tweeted that Beautiful Rewind is “the best album [he’s] made.” As a loyal Four Tet devotee, I’m not sure I can agree with this assessment quite yet – tracks like “Our Navigation” and “Kool FM” remain somewhat impenetrable to my ears (I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that “hey, hey, hey” sample on the latter). This record isn’t the place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Hebden’s work, nor is it the purest representation of his genius. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by the creativity and virtuosity on display here. The way he twists the Amen break inside-out at the end of “Kool FM”! The saxophones on “Your Body Feels”! Ultimately, it’s as rewarding as ever to hear what’s going on in this guy’s brain – only this time around, he’s given us material to chew on rather than simply fawn over.

-Zach Nivens, Music Director, Negative Fun

 

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