Pitch Perfect

It's smooth, sleek, and ready for commercials, but the music of Four Tet is so much more

Stop me if you've heard this one. You and your friends are sitting around the television watching Blind Date or Paradise Hotel or Hannity & Colmes (hey, it could happen). Maybe you're drinking a few beers, maybe you've just passed a joint. There's a commercial break. Your buddy starts to tell a joke.

"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.


Beans and Four Tet open for Prefuse 73

Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $15



Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus (at Chestnut), S.F.

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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.

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