Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid NYC

[Domino; 2008]

Styles: electro-jazz, folk-tronic, future funk
Others: Four Tet, Yesterday’s New Quintet, Squarepusher

Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Steve Reid (who has beat skins for Sun Ra, James Brown, Fela Kuti, and Miles Davis) have collaborated in various forms over the past few years, starting with the Exchange Sessions in 2006 and most recently on Reid’s recent release Daxaar. NYC, their new collaborative effort, finds the duo documenting the feel and vibe of New York City through sound collage, utilizing a surprising tool mostly absent from their previous collaborations: pop music. While far from easy listening, the mechanics of NYC sound positively pastoral, and the interplay between Reid and Hebden, formerly spastic and indebted to the free-est of jazz, is now melodic, the give and pull of the rhythmic forces against the melodic textures gentler, and the songs more likely to cause subtle head-bobbing and confused stares. To quoth my buddy who wandered into my radio room whilst reviewing and listening, “Dude, this sounds like some Adult Swim shit.”

While more trained ears might aim for more defined comparisons, he’s pretty much right. After the rev-up opener “Lyman’s Place,” the album settles into a Pam Grier flick soundtracked by Madlib-style strut with “1st & 1st,” replete with choppy guitars and Reid’s best afrobeat. Hebden is credited simply with “electronics,” but the track's wide range of sounds demonstrates just how far the credit can go, as he loops guitar, noise, and various motorik clicks and beeps. The diversity of the album proves Hebden and Reid’s strength: “Arrival” mines the potential hazardous middle ground where new age and krautrock meet, but avoids its pitfalls and achieves calm without melting into feel-good goo; “Between B & C” sounds like some Woodstock morning, missing only the gossamer harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash, sounding as much, if not more, “folktronica” -- the ridiculous tag often applied to Hebden’s work as Four Tet -- than most of Four Tet’s stuff; and “Departure” explores minimal repetition in the vein of Glass or Reich, before fuzzing out into a barrage of space age synths.

Reid’s play provides a needed balance point for Hebden’s lap-topping. His work is expressive and expansive. During moments when the samples venture into noisy abandon, his stick work anchors the songs, providing a “place,” a physical space for the songs to occupy. When the melodic sheets of the songs start to feel too gauzy or comforting, he adjusts the rhythms accordingly, tugging on the songs' sense of timing, attacking the snare with purpose, and propelling them appropriately. Having sat in with the heavyweights he has, it’s no surprise that Reid provides more than just the backbone to these songs; he gives them necessary heartbeats, sounding human when the songs call for it and savage when necessary.

I’ve regrettably never spent any time in New York City. But I imagine that the places these songs come from, figuratively and literally, is the kind of place that is alternately exciting and blissful. If Hebden and Reid wanted to encompass with sound a place that refuses to be easily defined or “figured out,” they’ve succeeded. If they intended something else, oh well. They still made a pretty great album.

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