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Freak Scene: Four Tet's Rounds

In 2003, a lot of people still had Discmans (Discmen?). The iPod already existed, but wasn't yet ubiquitous. I had one of those portable CD players that could handle data CDs, which could hold multiple albums. For the time, this sort of musical bounty was almost unheard of. I could load up one CD for an entire day and listen to it while walking between classes. I was a senior in high school, and had mostly checked out, which I rationalized by telling people (my parents) that I was doing "work," just different work: I was learning about music. Mostly, I was actually just listening to Four Tet’s Rounds which was something of a breakout album for England's Kieran Hebden.

Rounds came at exactly the right time. I was still trying to figure out Radiohead's Kid A, after many years of listening to it over and over. Where did those sounds come from? What were the influences? Was Kid A a rock album? If Kid A was a rock album, then what did that make Rounds? The short answer is that Rounds is a wildly diverse electronic album, moving from conventional, beat-driven stuff to downtempo shuffle to free jazz. All of it is infused with Hebden's good-natured warmth and flawless sense of structure. "And They All Look Broken Hearted," which comes toward end of the album, has no release—just stumbling drums, warped, backward loops and something that sounds a lot like a harp. It's just pretty, and there's really no other way to describe it without defaulting to trying to explain why sunsets are pretty, or why looking at an entire ocean is so breathtaking—it just is. "And They All Look Broken Hearted," and really the entirety of Rounds, is the sound of Hebden going for it, interpolating all his influences—his past in the post rock band Fridge, his love of electronic music and free jazz, his love of forcing alien sounds (there's an actual squeaky toy that pops up in "Slow Jam")—into this mishmash of daring, soft focus beauty. Rounds is the sound of Hebden repeatedly going out on a limb and hitting the mark every time.

I'm writing about Rounds right now because it is being reissued by Domino in celebration of its tenth anniversary on May 14th. It comes with a mostly unnecessary bonus live set from a Four Tet show in Copenhagen that sort of just proves that this album was so precisely composed that there isn't too much room for deviation in a live setting. But ten years! A lot of great stuff happened in that decade. A lot of absolutely shitty stuff too. Music was also changing. Electronic elements were freely introduced into genres that normally eschewed them. It got weird, and then normal and then weird again, and then what was weird became normal. Rounds was a constant—just strange enough to be a gateway, but still completely enjoyable on the terms it laid out for itself.

My main memory of the Spring of 2003—besides listening to Rounds on my Discman while wandering my high school's halls at a slight remove—is a week when my dad went out of town on a business trip. I had the house to myself, so I should have had a party. I'd tried it in the past and didn't really enjoy mopping huge amounts of alcohol off the floor with the doors open so the entire house didn't smell like stale beer. Instead, I put Rounds on his stereo system as loud as I could, laid on the couch and took a nap. This wasn't the first time I'd fallen asleep to music, but it was definitely the first time that falling asleep to music felt like the right thing to do.

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Freak Scene: Four Tet's Rounds