Four Tet

Pause (Domino)

Four Tet is the solo project of Kieran Hebden, a member of London's eclectic trio Fridge. While Fridge has never achieved significant recognition in the U.S., the Four Tet project remains even more obscure here, despite 1999's critically acclaimed album Dialogue. One hopes that Pausewill right the situation, because the second effort -- as dreamily colorful as its blurred cover -- is one of the most startlingly beautiful records this year.

Fridge began in 1996 with the dramatic stop-start rhythms and expanded instrumentation that distinguished U.S. post-rock groups like Tortoise and Gastr del Sol. Recently, the group has moved into more self-consciously "electronic" territory, taking inspiration from the tape loops of American minimalist composer Steve Reich. Four Tet's Pause reflects a softer version of Fridge's ideas, merging shuffling breakbeats with acoustic piano and plucked acoustic guitar. While the sound owes as much to folk music as anything else, hip hop and electronica still figure heavily in Hebden's world: Imagine the Beta Band, had the Scottish group spent more time listening to Nick Drake and Talk Talk.

Pause's opener, "Glue of the World," introduces the album's organic feel, with feathery guitar lines brushed across a rumbling break that could come from one of DJ Shadow's cinematic instrumentals. But it's the next track, "Twenty Three," that guides the listener into the heart of Hebden's fantastic cavern: Bells chime over a looping acoustic guitar pattern as a trumpet arcs across skipping drums. In track after track, Hebden works out variations on the same theme, crafting elegant tones out of chiming keyboards, ringing harpsichord, backward fuzzed guitar, and delicate harmonics. Hebden underpins the sounds with a collection of uncluttered breakbeats that are vastly more dynamic than the usual boom-bip of sampled drums.

While only one of the 11 tracks features vocals (the bizarre summer camp marching song "No More Mosquitoes"), listeners may find themselves singing along anyway -- either making up lyrics or just humming in harmony to the melodies. "Tangle," the album's understated highlight, compresses this impulse into a heartbreakingly pretty track. Against a background gurgling that sounds as if it were recorded underwater during an elongated breath, Hebden teases a single, looping melody -- half J.S. Bach, half John Fahey -- from his acoustic guitar. Although the song's only 3 1/2 minutes long, it's spun so delicately that it appears the melodic thread will unspool forever -- a ghostly reminder, perhaps, of those who did not make it up for air.

 
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