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For some odd reason year-end lists seem to be getting a bit of a rough trot this time around, but I’m not dissuaded from their worth. I enjoy them, for the simple reason that I find new books to read and new music to listen to; ultimately they help to diversify and enrich my life. So, in terms of music, what follows are the records I’ve enjoyed this year. I make no claim to being a critic, so there’s nothing that says ‘the best’; I just want to share what I’ve been listening to. As always, not all albums were released in 2015 – one (the Max Richter) first came out in 2012.

Bronze MedalThe Bronze Medal’s first long-player is a treat from start to finish. A young band from Bristol, and clearly inspired by The National, Darlings is filled with beautiful melancholia and rich instrumentation. ‘Life Plans’ is worth the price of admission alone. It will be very interesting to hear what these guys do next – as a debut Darlings is as stunning as it gets.

The Acid is a band comprising British DJ and record producer Adam Freeland, a professor of music technology Steve Nalepa, and the Australian singer-songwriter Ry Cuming. With Liminal the trio has created a slice of intimate electronic – it’s one part Bon Iver, one part The xx, and one part The Breeders (for those of a certain age). The production and dynamics are sublime; here’s ‘Fame‘. Fascinating to read that they have been performing at experimental music festivals, which makes sense as on this record they go far beyond the comparisons listed above.

I’ve been following Lamb since their drum-and-bass beginnings in 1996. They have never been afraid of getting metaphysical and filmic on us and, at times, just a little twee, but Backspace Rewind Lamb is a highlight of their career. ‘In Binary’ is an absolute thumper and I play it often and I play it loud, and the song blew the roof off the Enmore in Sydney when I saw them live earlier this year – it was one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever attended.

Neneh CherryOn Blank Project, Neneh Cherry has done what mega-selling recording artists should do: break free of all preconceived notions. Produced by Keiran Hebden (AKA Four Tet, someone else I’ve been following for quite a while) Blank Project is daring, experimental, and sounds utterly fresh. Sure it’s raw in parts, and it’s not entirely comfortable, but it deserves a stack of praise. Start with ‘Out of the Black‘. (Side note: I’ve made a mix-tape of the albums in this list for the car and Cherry’s songs are the strongest and most urgent.)

Pet Shop Boys are master songwriters but their output can be patchy. Electric, which was produced by Stuart Price (who worked on Madonna’s surprisingly excellent Confessions on a Dance Floor), is a ripper. Filled with melody and wit and worldliness – they cover Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Last to Die’ – there is never a dull or half-formed moment. ‘Love is a Bourgeois Concept’ deserves a video, and ‘Vocal’ is one of the finest album closers I’ve heard in years (wonderfully nostalgic video too).

Max RichterChanging the pace, the record I have listened to the most in 2015 is Max Richter’s recomposing of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Not only do I love the idea of a minimalist like Richter unpacking and then rebuilding a work as iconic as Vivaldi’s, it is also extraordinary to listen to. Richter has stated that if his reimagining makes more people discover the original, then he has done his job. Start with ‘Summer 1’.

A band that in my opinion simply can’t put a foot wring is The Go! Team, which is essentially Ian Parton, a one-man song-writing genius. Discarding the basement samples of previous albums, this time around Parton has used real instrumentation as well as collaborating with a fresh batch of vocalists. It’s true that Parton has a formula – infectious pop is his thing – but there is always such joy in his music. (And there’s more melody packed into any one Go! Team song than some bands manage across an entire album.) ‘The Art of Getting By’ has a coda that is so jam-packed with interweaved harmonies it’s hard not to throw you hands up in the air and cry.

Belle and Sebastian is one of those bands that have been around for years (since 1996 to be precise) but I’ve never quite managed to connect with them – perhaps the whole shy-bedroom-poetry-pre-hipster vibe put me off, or I was too busy listening to DJ Shadow. Hearing that after a 7-year hiatus they have come back with what they call their dance album, I thought I’d check them out. Girls in Peacetime want to Dance is wonderful: it’s clever, politically aware, and meticulously put together (as others have said, it sounds a little like Electric by Pet Shop Boys; case in point: ‘Nobody’s Empire‘). By no means is this record for everyone – with ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ they enter Eurovision territory – but they know what they’re doing and there’s a lot of good listening to be had here.

Sarah-Blasko-Eternal-ReturnSarah Blasko’s latest album, Eternal Return, is a sublime piece of work. With an electro feel overall, the selection comes across as a paean to love in the digital age, and while there is some darkness and loss there is never cynicism. There are no weak tracks, though ‘I’d Be Lost’ and ‘Only One’ are the stand-outs – both are gorgeous – and ‘Luxurious’ is exactly that. Here’s hoping this record does wonderful things for Blasko. It’s certainly done wonderful things for my car trips.

Another album that has hugely enriched my life is In Colours by Jamie xx, the ‘xx’ linking him to the wildly successful band of that name, for which he is the eletronica artist and producer. In Colours sees Jamie step well and truly onto the dance floor; the single ‘Loud Places’, which features Romy from The xx, is a hymn to nightclub possibilities, and the raga-esque ‘There’s Gonna be Good Times’ is ridiculously upbeat. In Colours was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and it’s not hard to see why.

I’ve also enjoyed No No No by Beirut (not Condon’s best release – it’s his first for the iconic 4AD label so perhaps the pressure got the better of him – but there’s still a lot to like, especially the single) and Features by the German producer Kris Menace (check out ‘Higher Love’, which has a vocal by Julian Hamilton from The Presets). Although I’ve not yet been able to hear full albums, I like what I’ve heard of Mercury Prize-winning Benjamin Clementine, and Floating Points and Majical Cloudz have been exciting new finds.

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

No reading, no writing, no chooks
I’m in the middle of a Burial festival, and I might be here for some time, no reading, no writing, no chooks, no buying stupid old shit, just Burial. That capitalised B is important, because I’m not talking about an act or event (though I might be, I suppose), but a music, and it could really be a type of music. Before I get carried away, which, as you probably know, is a common occurrence around these parts, Burial is a dub-step/2-step garage/electronica producer from London, UK. Extremely reclusive to the point that for the first five or so years of his practice no one knew who he was, Burial was sometimes said to be in reality a persona of other musicians or artists, including Four Tet, and even Banksy for Christ’s sake. Burial is, however, just a bloke called William Bevan. Who happens to be one of the most extraordinary music producers of the last twenty years.

Doing the opposite
Burial’s self-titled first album (2006) was sparse and beats-heavy, intricately produced but perhaps a little cold aesthetically. On Untrue, released the following year, Burial started working with twisted, distorted vocals to remarkable effect, although some might have found the jaggered rhythms and reliance on constant glitches and scratches and drops for atmosphere grating to the point of distraction. It’s true that Burial’s music often sounds like it’s been made in a dripping toilet with a wild thunderstorm going on outside. Since Untrue, perhaps exhausted from creating a piece of work that’s uniformly magnificent (the record was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Prize), Burial has been spending his time collaborating (Exhibit A: with Four Tet on ‘Moth’), creating a series of celebrated remixes (Exhibits B and C: a haunting, muddy reworking of Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’, or, if you really want to head into very dark terrain, his remix of Massive Attack’s ‘Four Walls’) and a set of a EPs available for digital download and on limited edition vinyl. Most musicians seem to go from rough to polish, but Burial appears to be doing the exact opposite, while becoming increasingly artful in the process.

Burial's 'Rival Dealer': more mysterious, more magnificent

Burial’s ‘Rival Dealer’: even more mysterious, even more magnificent

I’m going to love you more than anyone
So we have Kindred, Rough Sleeper and, released late last year with almost no fanfare, now Rival Dealer. Are EPs music’s equivalent of novellas? Burial may well answer yes: despite their brevity, in his hands they are deep and expansive and profoundly affecting. Dance and electronica are often charged with being hedonistic, insular, and ultimately vacuous, but Burial has described his latest three-song collection as his anti-bullying statement. In fact, he’s gone further: ‘It’s like an angel’s spell to protect [the bullied] against the unkind people, the dark times, and the self-doubts.’ But easy-listening this is not. Despite vocal grabs including ‘come down to us’ and ‘I’m going to love you more than anyone’ and ‘tonight we feel alive’, ‘Rival Dealer’ the song is a frantic, urgent, beautiful mess centring on a sample that sounds like it comes from screeching brakes; the whole construction stops, it starts, it collapses, it turns in on itself; it sounds as though someone’s escaping torment. Proceedings ease up with the brief (a 5-minute duration is short in Burial’s world) ‘Hiders’, which is all falling piano chords before a surprisingly cheeky serve of almost soft-metal power-drumming comes in for company. ‘Come Down to Us’ is epic in a majestically meandering way, and with its references to minority sexuality – bisexuality and transgender in particular – the sense of loss and loneliness is evaluated to an almost spiritual level…in the most tender way.

No doubt
There’s no doubt that Burial is an acquired taste – with Rival Dealer many will be frustrated by Bevan’s insistence on ignoring familiar structures and dishing out beats that just shouldn’t add up – but once you’ve had the taste it’s almost impossible to forget.

May the Burial festival continue.

For a long time.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs. For months now I’ve been meaning to write at length about this album but frankly I’ve just never known how to do it.  I love husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and their expanded brood.  Both their previous albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, are classics in my book in that they have something to say and know how to say it, plus there’s an element of timelessness about the music they make.  However, at first I wasn’t sure about The Suburbs. As others have noted, the band have turned down their histrionics to suit the subject matter of suburban alienation and emptiness, and perhaps this is a good thing as at times this Canadian lot do conjour up an almost evangelical zeal.  But a number of the songs here, particularly in the middle third, seem to end up nowhere – there’s a faint wiff of oh well, we almost got this right, but bugger it, we’ll chuck it on the record anyway.  The Suburbs is long and a cull would have made it closer to extraordinary.  Still, there’s no denying that it’s a very, very fine album, with a good chunk of it comprising intelligent, passionate song-writing – ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’, ‘We Used to Wait’ are just a handful of gems on offer here.  It also expands the band’s musical pallet, even getting a little electro/disco in parts – who’d have thought!

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening. There’s something about James Murphy and his mates that really spins my nipples.  Sure they want to be this decade’s Talking Heads, but it’s the cleverness in the production, the wittiness in the lyrics (despite being someone who loves writing and reading I’m rarely interested in song lyrics, but Murphy sure knows how to engage a listener through word-craft), and the sheer dancability of the beats that make this music impossible to ignore.  This is Happening may as well be titled ‘This Won’t Be Happening For Very Much Longer’ as it’s LCD Soundsystem’s last album and perhaps it’s fair to say that there’s an element of starting to go over old ground here.  However, once this CD find its way into my car it’s near impossible to get the bloody thing out of it again.  Infectious, hilarious, and totally bloody brilliant.

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks. I started my love of Frightened Rabbit with this album and then worked my way back to The Midnight Organ Fight (which apparently is a euphomism for sex – I’ll have to try that out, the phrase I mean).  I know there are many who’ve been following Frightened Rabbit since the beginning who didn’t enjoy this second album as much, but apparently it’s the album the band always wanted to make, so who are we to argue?  It’s noisy, dirty, and at times a bit of a mess, but ultimately it’s a supremely passionate, almost uplifting affair, with every second tune building to a stratospheric conclusion.  Sure all the songs seem to argue that modern relationships are a bit rubbish, and that modern life in general is a bit rubbish (and I have no doubt that it is), but when it’s said with as much blood, sweat and tears as it is on this record, well, turn your back at your own peril.  Go searching for ‘Skip the Youth’ and if you’re not moved, go see your doctor.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You. I wrote about this album back in February, making it clear how much I loved it, and I still play the bloody thing regularly, mostly because it’s dance music with heart and soul (note: it’s categorically not chill-out music).  There Is Love In You deserves to be remembered as a classic of the genre; every track is just so sublimely intelligent – listen closely at what Hebden is doing and you can see why he’s considered a genius.  (I have a hunch that he might also be a bit of a nerd, but that’s no bad thing – nerds of the world unite!)  Put this record on at the end of a summer’s Saturday afternoon, pour yourself a drink, open your French doors and forget about the rubbish modern world that Frightened Rabbit is, well, frightened about, and just watch as your toes start tapping and your heart starts beating just that little bit more solidly.

Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II. Like Four Tet’s album, Crystal Castles’ second spinner is all about intelligent dance music.  The shouty Sonic Youth-esque interludes are still there, but this time around there’s significantly more craft in the actual songs, and indeed they are songs, as much as dance tracks can actually be songs.  There’s been a heap of thought put into this music, and there’s a fair wallop of heart as well (I can sense a theme emerging in this end-of-the-year wrap-up: the head and heart of great music).  Check out ‘Vietnam’, ‘Suffocation’ and ‘Celestica’.  If you’re of a certain age, also go searching for a reissue of ‘Not In Love’, which contains a vocal by Robert Smith from The Cure – you’ll be gelling up your hair into gothy spikes within seconds.  Amongst all the thought and heart there’s an ugliness here, as if over the last couple of years this Canadian duo (there’s such good music coming from Canada at the moment) has been wandering the earth finding cities that, like most hospitals, aren’t really fit for human living.  Ultimately, however, amongst this ugliness there’s beauty to be had, it’s just that it’s a hard beauty, an honest beauty, and that’s got to be a good thing.  If Crystal Castles make a third album, and let’s pray that they do, and they keep going on this trajectory, then they may well create the dance album of the century.  It’s a big call, but based on what this duo have produced so far it’s not unjustified.

Phil Retrospector – IntroVersion. Like Four Tet’s record, I’ve written previously about Irish remix artist/sonic magician Phil Retrospector and his IntroVersion album – in fact I gushed about it embarrassingly.  But the thing is I still believe every word of it; I recently decided that discovering Retrospector’s IntroVersion and associated tunes, all of which are only available on his website, is the musical event of 2010.  Whilst most of the bands listed above conclude that modern life is just too empty to offer any real hope, there’s a great big wallop of enjoyment to be had here, which is more than ironic considering Mr Retrosepctor acknowledges that this is ‘glass half-empty music’.  The thing is, it’s music that connects, that affects, that moves.  This is what’s good about the modern world (okay, there’s something): having the technology to cherry-pick the best of what’s happened to music in the last fifty or so years, and, using as much skill and intelligence as possible, make something new, say something new, and give your listeners something to chew on into the bargain.  It’s DIY, it’s punk, it’s probably illegal.  It’s one mother of a nose thumbed at the music industry; it says we’re going to make great music no matter what you think.  Call Retrospective’s stuff maudlin, mawkish, melancholic, nostalgic, sentimental, I don’t give a damn – as long as this bloke’s making music as good as this I’m happy to keep having a crack at life.

In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place.  Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community.  After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.

To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out.  I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!).  I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you.  You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention.  A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.

Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.

***

‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’  (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)

‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another.  You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story.  I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’  (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’

‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’  (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)

‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’  (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)

‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’  (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)

SUNDAY, midday: it’s been raining for 24 hours now, and no one around here can remember the last time this happened (in the newspaper this morning the police advised motorists to ‘pull over if they can’t see when driving’ – that just shows that we Canberrans have actually forgotten how to do this whole wet-day thing).  For lunch I’ve knocked off a few slices of shaved ham (which might qualify for Ordinary Ecstasy status; see previous post if you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you’re the police).  I’ve chased the ham slices with a couple of chocolate shells.  It’s highly likely that I’ll be making myself a cup of peppermint tea, because my no-caffeine diet is going gangbusters.  The opposite of gangbusters is The Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper who are happily curled on the lounge, dreaming of long mountain walks and cornering rats respectively.  We may not be leaving the house for hours.

But this is all by-the-by, because over the past few days I’ve been falling in love…truly madly deeply IN LOVE…with a new album.  It’s playing as I write this; in fact it’s been on high-rotation since I bought the thing last Monday.  (Does anyone else find semi-colons miraculous, by the way?  See?  Only when you’re in love do you start asking questions like that!)

The album?  Well, it’s the appropriately titled ‘There Is Love In You’ by Four Tet.  Four Tet’s 2003 album ‘Rounds’ is also much adored, because it too is electronic music with warmth and humanity.  But where ‘Rounds’ more than anything else was an organic album, sampling pianos and mandolins and saxophones (wait, come back – there’s nothing Kenny G about Four Tet’s Keiren Hebden) and even children’s toys, so it could almost be called a folk record, this latest collection is more dance-oriented, in the way that Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is more dance-oriented.  But what really gets me about this music is the sheer beauty.  It reminds me of The Field in that Hebden gets a soft little riff going and then plays with it, taking it here a little, taking it there a little, building things up just a bit before bringing us down softly.  This isn’t glowstick-and-pills music; it’s more peppermint tea and a nana-blanket, though your toes will be tapping beneath your nana-blanket, nothing is surer than that.

There’s also a touch of Burial.  And hints of The Chemical Brothers, in the way that it sounds like the machines making this music are having conversations with each other, although Hebden’s machines are hanging out together in the sandpit, or making daisy chains, or sitting on the front steps with their arms around each other, just cuddling because cuddling is a good thing to do.  I don’t post MP3s on Under the Counter, but ‘Angel Echoes’ and the extraordinary ‘Love Cry’ are worth checking out, even if electronic music makes you want to run a million miles to the nearest beer-soaked hotel.  (And don’t YouTube them, because someone will have put the music to some shit images that’ll make it all look and feel like a badly drawn ad for aftershave.)

But not only has this album got my heart a-flutter and my arms out wide looking for the nearest thing to hug (The Old Lady of The House and Cat The Ripper are two lucky creatures today!), it also has the brain turning over, forming a question: what is it that I look for in the rather large amount of music that I buy each month?  It has to have its own voice.  It must know what it’s setting out to achieve, and it must be more than record sales and Video Hits.  It has to work my brain and heart and other parts of my body too, like my legs and arms, and…well, you get the picture.  It can’t be meretricious.  It can’t be copies of something else.   Above all, it has to have some kind of resonance; it has to aim for a response.  It should make me realise something about myself.

Four Tet’s ‘There Is Love In You’ makes me realise that I like music with heart, in the same way I like people with heart (amazing how many people don’t actually have hearts).  ‘There Is Love In You’ also makes me realise that I like music that says, ‘I really don’t care what you think about me, because I’m just going to be myself, because that’s all I can be.’

I like music that has the gentle fighting spirit: never try to take away my soul.

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