"You guys ever hear the one about the priest wh--"
He stops midsentence. There's a sound coming from the TV, the music for a car commercial. It sends a shock through all of you: Your favorite band has sold its song to Saturn.
These days it happens all the time, and with increasing frequency to lesser-known bands (read: bands desperate for cash), the kind us music geeks consider our own. Let Pepsi have Britney and Beyoncé. But Levi's nabbing Mogwai? Nissan nabbing Modest Mouse? Come on guys, those are our songs. Shouldn't we at least have put this to a vote?
While all manner of acts have been known to grab the brass ring of licensing, there's a genre of music that, more than any other, seems to find its way most consistently into adverts, chic restaurants, and trendy clothing outlets: downtempo. Exemplified by the songs of late-'90s success stories like Thievery Corporation and Kruder & Dorfmeister, the delectably mellow beats and blithers of downtempo are today practically synonymous with opportunism. The "chill-out" room of last decade's raves has morphed into the Chill-Out Compilation, brought to you by Starbucks, Old Navy, or Banana Republic. What was once a dense and complex genre defined by experimentation and innovation has now become as bland as the food served in the chain restaurants you're liable to hear it in. Which is why I worry about Four Tet's latest, Rounds.
Rounds is one of my favorite albums so far this year. Intricate yet soothing, challenging yet comforting, it's the kind of record you can spend a great deal of time with and never get sick of, for it asks only as much of you as you feel like giving. While it's soft and delicate, warm and fuzzy, there's enough music in it to keep you coming back for more, discovering new subtleties with every listen. The problem, however, is that it is unmistakably downtempo: blissful, gentle, and very chilled out.
I don't know about you, but I really don't feel like having another one of those TV moments described above. For once, can't I just like a record and not have to see its compelling sounds used to sell sneakers? Kieran Hebden, the sole force behind Four Tet, offers at least a little comfort.
"I think sometimes you make a record, and initially the response is it's quite a challenging record," says Hebden, speaking by phone from his home in London. "And then six months later it makes more sense to people and suddenly you're hearing it in restaurants. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I think it's a bad thing if you then put out the same album again because you feel comfortable in that situation."
Despite having sold his music to monoliths like Nike, Hebden, to his credit, has avoided making bland, predictable records, perhaps because he knows a thing or two about artistic process, including its interaction with commercial endeavors. At only 25 he's released eight LPs -- first with his post-rock band Fridge, now as a solo electronica artist under the alias Four Tet -- as well as a handful of singles and EPs. He's also produced records for the likes of Beth Orton, opened for Radiohead on its European tour, and done remixes for high-profile acts such as Badly Drawn Boy and Aphex Twin. While these successes have earned Hebden a sterling underground reputation, it is Rounds that's made him a household name within hipster circles. A somnambulant record, Rounds expands the downtempo template in half a dozen directions, twisting and pulling the core of the genre until, in some moments, it's almost unrecognizable. The fact that the music also happens to be melodic and engaging enough to sell soda makes it no less of an artistic achievement.
The record begins with the sound of a heart lub-dubbing its way into a twinkling backdrop of ambient sounds and rhythmic samples, all of which busily helix around one another before falling into a lock-step hip hop beat. The juxtaposition of a heart's natural rhythm against a flurry of synthetic noise is something that grabs your attention immediately, and Hebden was well aware of that when he crafted it.
"I think when you're putting together an album," he says, "and trying [to] pace it and you want people to really experience the whole thing, nonmusical sound becomes amazingly powerful. The idea of the heartbeat is, I wanted to kind of pull people in right away, you know? They put the record on and they instantly focus."
This creative approach to production creates a remarkable tension throughout Rounds -- see the frenetically chopped-up blasts of noise on the otherwise docile "She Moves She," or the jarring whirlwind of staccato synths that obscures the soft symphonics of "Spirit Fingers" -- and helps separate these tracks from their more innocuous counterparts on other downtempo records. But while experimentation waves its hand vigorously at times, the record's biggest selling point (and the reason it appeals to a wide swath of listeners) is that it's just so fucking beautiful.
The tattered, trudging beat that leads "Unspoken" through a cityscape of sounds, from a fiery free-jazz club packed with dueling horn solos to a traffic-filled street alive with noises of all kinds, ultimately puts you right back where you started, in a blanket of warm piano chords, ready for sleep. Later, "And They All Look Broken Hearted" soundtracks your dreams of distant lands, full of instruments you've never heard before. The most mellifluous track, however, is the album's centerpiece, "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth," which illustrates how Hebden's music can make for easy and difficult listening. As what sounds like a respirator lays down a spooky ebb and flow, a dulcet melody like that of a music box (you can almost see the toy ballerina spinning perfect 360s) is swept away by a sample that, despite being played backward through Hebden's computer, runs in perfect harmonic counterpoint to the music-box tune. On this song, and throughout the record, sounds are contorted and distorted beyond recognition, but somehow the end result is catchy. This instinct for mixing sweet and sour is part of Hebden's MO. Unlike his more snooty peers, he's not interested in alienating listeners who may not have a Ph.D. in IDM (i.e., intelligent dance music).
"I think the really great thing to achieve in music is when you combine innovation and experimentation with accessibility," he explains. "I think the records that really break ground -- take Missy Elliott's 'Get Your Freak On' or [Aphex Twin's] 'Windowlicker' or something like that, records that came out and sounded unlike anything anyone had ever heard, but they came on and within two bars of hearing it, everyone gets it, they completely identify, it moves them straight away. I think that's something I aim for. I don't aim to make music that purely stimulates people's ideas about what's possible about making music on computers. I want to kind of touch them as well."
The rub, however, is that when a forward-thinking artist's music manages to be accessible -- especially in the world of downtempo -- ad people eat it up instantly. And when that happens, the whole genre gets watered down. Has anyone heard the latest music from Thievery Corporation or Kruder & Dorfmeister or Blue States? If not, don't. Like many downtempo artists, they seem to have become slaves to commercial revenue streams, their music no more innovative than a breakfast cereal.
But Hebden's approach is new and improved. He has sold out before, and that didn't stop him from producing his finest work to date. If anything, the money's just a means to an end, which is what it should be. Now, with his live show, he's expanding his vision even further.
"I've actually made [the live show] a lot more aggressively electronic," he says. "The stuff I'm doing live at the moment is all about real-time live improvisation on computers, which is kind of the main thing that's going on in my music at the moment. ... The idea is that whatever's going on with the live things, as the music evolves more and more, it will essentially evolve into the basis for the next album."
So maybe it's not so bad to catch a track from Rounds during a commercial break from Survivor. Ad agencies may flock to Hebden's latest in the coming months, but they'll still be far enough behind this artist's ever-steepening curve to offer a wee bit of solace: While Hebden may end up soundtracking car commercials with his next record, at least they'll be for the 2006 model.