Four Tet – Morning/Evening: Round 83, Nick’s choice

morningI’d bought a great big pile of potentials to our previous session and talked through them all while introducing what I did play, unwittingly giving myself a big selection to choose from for this session, but as the weeks passed and turned into months since we last met, life took over, and the pile, which I’d left out as an aide memoire, got tidied away. Luckily Rob suggested that we’d talked about Four Tet, because it was record club and he’s a name that comes up onerously often, which gave me an excuse to play his beautiful new record, which I don’t think had quite been released when we last met.

When the title and track listing was announced back in the spring I immediately imaged what I wanted this record to sound like. The primary clue? It consists of only two tracks, each 20-ish minutes long, and they are called “Morning Side” and “Evening Side”. My hope was that Kieran Hebden had made something veering towards an ambient record, perhaps following the lead of the lovely, Eno-esque “Peace for Earth” from Pink. And you know what? He kind of has.

While there’s arguably slightly more ‘substance’ to this than some ambient records – it can and does reward close attention, and you could even dance to it relatively easily if you so wished – it is a decidedly low key affair nonetheless, and very happy to sit quietly in a room whilst you do other things, occupying the purpose of ambient music if not, precisely, the genre.

Hebden has talked about this record as being partially about embracing his family heritage following his grandmother dying in 2013, and the manipulated sample of Indian soundtrack singer Lata Mangeshkar that winds its way beautifully through “Morning Side”, although comparable to some similar vocal samples he’s used in the past, definitely feels like something new in his repertoire. It also feels entirely logical and comfortable.

“Morning Side” has received most praise in reviews and discussion that I’ve seen, but it might be “Evening Side” that I like best; its start is even more low-key than “Morning Side”, and it remains in this beatific state of quietude for some considerable time, before, during the final seven minutes or so, all the vocals, synths, and delicate loops fade away, leaving just a pulsing, hip-hop-ish, club-friendly drum track, which reminds me of the ecstatic John Stanier beats that close out the title track on The Fields’ excellent Yesterday and Today.

Morning/Evening is a very warm and beautiful record; to me it feels like a high point of Four Tet’s remarkably consistent catalogue, up there with There Is Love In You and Rounds. I can’t offer much in the way of critical analysis of it beyond saying that it’s a lovely thing to behold.

Rob listened: It’s a lovely record. A couple of weeks before this meeting, I’d had a week of long hours at work, hours in which I needed to get lost in some of the stuff I had to do. I found myself reaching for this album on Spotify and it worked a treat. It’s soothing, vitalising, warm and tender. I listened to it half a dozen times or more and it worked at any level of focus or attention. It’s also a beguilingly simple and natural-sounding music. This being Spotify I ended up letting it run and taking in large parts of Hebden’s discography back to the last record I bought, ‘There Is Love In You’. I loved what I heard, full of variety, equally gorgeous and scabrous, wide-ranging and exploratory and, in the background or the foreground, intoxicating. It really helped.

Tom listened: Nick seems to be in a rich vein of form at the moment for unveiling beautifully constructed music that soothes and caresses and envelopes in a kind of musical security blanket…nothing too challenging here but certainly very enjoyable to spend time with.

I thought the parallels with In a Silent Way were evident – two long tracks, the second building to an obvious crescendo having teased us with its restraint over the course of the previous 15 or so minutes. Some albums are so frequently misappropriated that you feel that the last thing the world needs is another album that sounds similar yet lesser. In a Silent Way is not one of them…and, anyway, Kieran Hebden has really only echoed the structure of that record; the music on Morning/Evening sounds all his own.

Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu: Round 60, Nick’s choice

Omar-Souleyman-Wenu-WenuWhat the hell is an “album of the year” anyway? Despite Tom’s exhortations, I couldn’t pick just one record from last year, and of the four or five that I like an awful lot I’ve already played some either here or at the other place (Melt Yourself Down, These New Puritans) and the others are 75+ minutes in length (Holden, Nils Frahm). So I thought I’d just play something that I liked quite a bit and found fascinating and thought would make for a really good record club experience.

Step forward Omar Souleyman, Syrian wedding singer.

Souleyman’s musical career spans more than 20 years, and superseded his earlier career as a labourer. He’s released more than 700 albums, the vast majority of which are live recordings of performances at weddings, dubbed straight to tape and handed, as a single, unique copy, to the bride and groom. His essence is his live performance, and Wenu Wenu is his first “studio” album, and was produced by Kieron Hebden, aka Four Tet.

Compilations produced for a western audience exist (mostly on the Sublime Frequencies label), hatched together from live recordings, but this is the first time he’s recorded something specifically as an album, to be released on CD, for a British record label (Domino, the same label as Arctic Monkeys, also played this evening), and that can be reviewed, purchased, listened to, and ranked in end-of-year polls according to the suffocating orthodoxy of how we consume music in the US and UK these days.

Souleyman, a native of Syria who now lives in Turkey, plays a type of music called dabke, a popular style of performance and dance across the whole of the Middle East, which is particularly well suited to celebratory events. Like weddings. It consists of intricate, almost hysterical instrumental leads played (on Wenu Wenu, at least) on electric saz (a teardrop-shaped stringed instrument that looks a little like a lute) and a synthesizer imitating traditional Arabic reed instruments. These riffs spiral at the edge of chaos over the top of relentlessly thumping 4/4 rhythms, the mournful lyrics (“wenu wenu” means “where is she?”) and dramatic delivery at odds with the rampant tempos.

If you need a western comparison as an entry point, then it’s dance music. Really fast, electronic dance music. Wenu Wenu is a string of club bangers, only relenting when the final two tracks slow the pace a tiny bit. “It used to be slow, but when the keyboard came into this music, every year we made it faster, until we reached what we have now,” Souleyman said to The Guardian last autumn. You can hear why DJs looking for something esoteric and different to drop into a set without breaking pace would choose Souleyman, why Hebden wanted to record him.

“I have a good voice, and am interested in music,” Souleyman also said, and he does. I gather from people who are properly into dabke and other Middle Eastern genres that there are better wedding singers out there than Souleyman; some of them seem perturbed that he has crossed over into the European and American musical consciousness when others haven’t. I can’t speak for that, but I can say that Wenu Wenu is great fun, and strangely moving, and slightly uncanny in its fusion of familiarity and otherness.

Rob listened: More reports from the frontline of a fracturing musical landscape. Say what you like about Omar Souleyman, call him a novelty cross-over, a hipster breakthrough act, the fact is that we’re at a point now where we can discover the work of a frenzied Syrian wedding singer and marvel not only at the energy, the textures, the sheer fizzing pizzaz of it, but also at the fact that it sounds pretty much like the sort of stuff we could be hearing on niche dance labels or on a 3am dancefloor. I don’t know whether this means we’ve come full circle, whether music is running out of ideas or catching up with its own future, but I love the implied chaos and I specifically love the idea of this chap rocking up at a wedding in some corner of Syria and banging out tunes most scowling dance acts would kill for.

Tom Listened: Although I enjoyed Wenu Wenu, I found the first two thirds of the album pretty exhausting. It’s my age! At first the relentlessness of the sound was captivating but by the time I had finished my Balti, I was wishing for a bit of variety. And, almost instantly, it came, the last couple of songs being much slower and groovier. If the album had a bit more shade to go with the light (or, even, if it had been sequenced differently) I would probably be championing it unequivocally.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You: Round 32, Nick’s choice

I love Four Tet pretty unconditionally and have done for over a decade; in 2001, when I returned from university and discovered Audiogalaxy, Everything Is Alright, from his second album, Pause, was the first song I ever downloaded via the internet; I wish I could remember what prompted me to do so, as I’d never heard anything by him before. Not long afterwards, I bought a CD copy of Pause, and I’ve bought every album since, gone back and acquired Dialogue, his debut, and seen him live a couple of times too. He seems to have released records in parallel with Caribou, and they seem to have trodden similar paths (they remix each other regularly).

In 2003 his live show consisted of him sitting at a laptop and destroying his music. Given that I love his music, I didn’t enjoy myself; it seemed bloody-minded, wilful, and solipsistic. Eight years later we saw him at the Caribou-curated ATP festival, where he played a rapturously received set. It was a remarkable transformation, helped no doubt by his long-term residence as DJ at the Plastic People club, where, it seems, he must’ve learnt how to communicate with and move an audience.

There Is Love In You, which was my nominal album of the year in 2010 moves from Four Tet’s “folktronica” (I use the term reservedly) past, where electronic methods and acoustic instrumentation combined joyously, into much more pure electronic textures. The Ringer EP from 2008 had signposted this move fabulously, but still had a hint of experimental insularity about it, whereas There Is Love In You is fully warm, open, communicative, and, most importantly of all, beautiful. When I first heard it, I described it on a forum as “blissful end-of-the-night house, or end-of-the-breakwater ambient, or middle-of-the-city techno”. I stand by that.

Kieran Hebden (as his mum knows him) essentially builds up layer upon layer of intricate melodic loops and sequences, generally underpinning them with late-night four-on-the-floor rhythms, and very occasionally elaborating them with vocal snippets. It works both as music for dancing to and music for listening to; I can attest to it making a beautiful soundtrack to summer walks or bike rides (only ever on dedicated cyclepaths, kids – never use headphones on the roads!), but it also makes for wonderful gazing-out-of-the-window music on misty autumn days. Tracks like This Unfolds and Circling are just intensely pretty, and strangely emotive too; he finds that space between joy and melancholy with what seems like great ease.

Tom Listened: As far as I am concerned, Kieran Hebden shot himself in the foot when I went to see him play at the Exeter Pheonix a few years ago. I have never felt angry at a gig before – disappointed… yes, bored…plenty of times…never angry though. But Four Tet were trying it on. At the time I owned two Four Tet albums – Rounds and Pause – and I liked both, not unequivocably but enough to be looking forward to the gig. Just before the gig Hebden had teamed up with veteran jazz drummer Steve Reid and in concert the two of them produced seemingly random noise for the best part (or worst part) of an hour and a half. It felt like the audience were the butt of their own in joke and I lost a lot of respect for the man that night.

I honestly don’t think I had listened to Four Tet since then…so imagine my disappointment when Nick played There Is Love In You and it turned out to be so fantastic – better to my mind than either Pause or Rounds, loads to explore, lengthy songs to get lost in, a (gentle) funkiness that runs throughout the album, even some vocals every now and again. I’d love to see Four Tet performing proper songs like these in concert, but whether I would be prepared to risk another hour and a half of cacophony is debatable…at least if you buy the album, you know what you’re getting!

Rob listened: I’m shocked to learn than Nick illegally downloaded Four Tet’s music and I hope the police track him down and give him his just desserts.

I love ‘There Is Love In You’, from the beautiful, glowing opening vocal loop to, erm, the end, by which point I’m usually too far gone to worry about what the songs are called or what’s going on at all. It’s a weird record in that respect. I’ve listened to it much more than ‘Pause’, the other Four Tet record I own but in some ways I feel I know it less. Without listening back I can’t recall many of the musical moments, other than that opening vocal, name any of the songs or really bring much of it to mind at all. I confess I use it as a warm and thoroughly pleasant background soundtrack whenever I need to reach for one and it works perfectly. I love the fact that it still evades me. It makes me feel like I won’t wear it out any time soon.

Graham listened: It must be an age thing. I can get the “groove thang” with records like this and it will draw me in when I’m listening, but just don’t feel the need to listen again. I’ve even experimented with some purchases myself with the same results. The hooks and melodies that are devoured by others are wasted on me. I can understand the complexity and ingenuity that go into composition, but maybe I still perceive such music as a threat to establishment rock?