ollowing up the success of Rounds wasn't going to be easy. Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) was pinned down as a master of folktronica (messy term that it is) and had the pressure of coming up with something to top what many, including me, consider to be a classic work. After much touring and re-mixing work, Hebden hit the apartment/laptop/studio to quickly produce an album devoted to the energy he was drawing from many genres. The resulting album, Everything Ecstatic, maintains that energy, but, despite the two-month recording time, lacks the unity and consistency of 2003's breakthrough.
The album's leadoff single, "Smile Around the Face," provides one of Everything Ecstatic's finest moments. The track centers around one of those kinds of samples—the kind where you're positive you've heard it before but can't place it, and all your music geek friends have the same response. My wife claims it's "silly and buzzy" and "sounds like a gospel choir on helium." I'm getting no help on this one, but it's a high melody over shuffling drum part. More assertive than ambient, but more chill than club music.
Like that hook, most of the music on this album draws attention to itself, but the ways the tracks do that vary. "Sun Drums and Soil" shows off Hebden's jazz influence. The drumming (echoing the album's opening seconds) could lead any post-bop combo, but Hebden doesn't leave it at that. He steadily builds on this six-minute song until his layers of sound top off with some horns in a free-for-all that never loses control.
The other slow-builder, "Sleep, Eat Food, Have Visions," has a hard time establishing its identity. After a burst of hip-hop beats, it settles into a series of blippy features, which never develop enough to clear the listener of her impatience. After three and a half minutes, the song finally gets going, but not through the kind of development on "Sun Drums and Soil." Hebden simply shifts direction abruptly. The change works, not because it makes sense, but because on the new percussion beat he understands how to create something, hinting at sounds, teasing at melodies, and using various sounds to establish a polyrhythmic structure. The addition of a babbling crowd increases the tension, but Hebden cuts back the noise to set a limit, opening up space for bells and a sort of minimal exploration that feels simple and inventive after the song's first seven minutes.
Each of these tracks, as well as most of the disc, is good, but the songs would probably stand better alone than in conversation with each other. Whereas Rounds pulled in too-numerous influences to create a singular vision, Everything Ecstatic draws massive stimuli into ten internally consistent but somewhat isolated numbers. What Hebden's really made is a series of five worthwhile 12-inches (including the actually released must have of "Smile Around the Face / Sun Drums and Soil." The slower numbers don't reveal anything related to the upbeat pieces; the jazz drumming doesn't reflect on the surrounding hip-hop beats or the more experimental percussion.
In the particular, Hebden still proves himself to be a unique talent. He seems to be running with some sort of musical epiphany, but he's not sure how to pin it down into a tight statement, instead throwing out all the corollaries of an undefined thesis. Everything Ecstatic provides an enjoyable listen, but it also sounds as much like a groping as a declaration.
Of course, who doesn't like a good grope?