It may seem untimely that this review is running almost one year to the day after Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid sequestered themselves in NYC's famous Avatar Studio for two days of recording. At the rate that the world, and thus music, changes these days, a year is more than enough time to render ideas, sounds and whole projects obsolete. Some artists weather this cycle by producing pop tunes with such long nuclear half lives that their output remains long after its expiration date. Others revive time-tested forms and techniques that find an immediate and therefore deeper place in their listeners' attention. With NYC (released December 1, 2008 on Domino), the duo instead tries to fight fire with fire, waging time-based resistance to the temporal obstacle that can be music's undoing. See, right now might just be the best time to pipe this one through the headphones.
Let me explain by first acknowledging that this is not an electronic album. Hebden, known in a solo context as Four Tet, has long been heralded for his electronic innovation, but he does something different in this collaboration with Reid, a percussive omnibus whose CV includes Miles Davis, Sun Ra, James Brown, Fela Kuti and Ornette Coleman. Spurning the sort of digitized beat construction that rules the day and tends to favor spatial exploration over temporal motion, Hebden and Reid have created a document of a place via deep attention to time.
Each track on the album corresponds to a particular location in Manhattan, mostly intersections, but more important is the organic analogia that documents the second-to-second act of the album's creation. Without over-indulging in synthetic textures or looping Reid's drums in fractured snippets, Hebden is able to generate the sort of abstraction that is his trademark, without sacrificing the live insistence of music made in real time.
While Hebden drops pockets of fuzz into the mix, inserts micro-drones and quaint samples, the upper textures never obscure the sound of the studio's carpet underneath Reid's kick drum. While Hebden's contribution is, at times, dissonant, the textures are never outwardly disorienting. Suds burble up from underground, straws slurp, marimbas clatter and found sounds interject, but all remains interlaced with Reid's unconscious pulse. Lyman Place" evokes a jet accelerating to flight. Arrival" vamps for nine blissful minutes, as delicate synthesizers chirp like birds around the soundscape. And in a refreshingly funky turn, 1st & 1st" uses syncopation at a time when few beatsmiths dare to.
It's been a while since Hebden's work earned the moniker folktronica," and even here, the title might not suitably apply, but in NYC's analog beat-craft there is a quality that is both retro and forward thinking. It's a sort of momentum that seems, despite the deep obstacles confronting our world in the '09, a little more vital and promising that it would have in early '08.