The remix has always had two sides to its story. On the one are those who’ve used it as a cash cow, a form of art where established dance producers can exploit their reputation in the name of a quick buck.
Thankfully such practices that were rife in the mid 1990s are largely confined to the second hand bargain bins, and those still standing see the form as an artistic challenge, a chance to impose their own musical personalities on the music of others, without the need to resort to formula.
Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, belongs firmly in the latter camp. A prolific remixer, he has an individual approach that transforms the music he works on into tracks that are recognisably his. In particular he has an individual flair with percussion, not just inventive or oddball rhythms, but florid drum fills that surround the melodic material, rarely getting inits way.
Of course Hebden explores this improvisatory style further in his sessions with Steve Reid, but he largely uses it with economy in his remixes. Now and then he overdoes it, but the most successful work secures a tension between the relative stillness of the pitched sounds he retains against the more frenetic activity of the drums. Thom Yorke finds himself thus cast, with the remix of Radiohead‘s Skttrbrain setting his long, drawn out vocal against a slow moving chorale, with splintered breakbeats all around.
Within this loose template there is still plenty of room for Hebden to operate. The remix of His Name Is Alive‘s One Year is notably empty, a barely perceptible melody atop dislocated drum beats. Contrast that with the bluster of Madvillain‘s rap in Great Day, a full accompaniment giving the track huge energy. Meanwhile Bonobo‘s Pick Up moves forward in stately fashion with a DJ Shadow-type rhythm, while the early remix of Rothko‘s Roads Become Rivers offers a more sombre mood.
Domino’s generous package surveys not only the pick of Four Tet’s remixes over the past seven years, but craftily adds a second disc of Hebden remixed by others, in fact every remix he has commissioned. This includes an excellent reworking of the flexible As Serious As Your Life from Jay Dee, but even given the variety on show the four remixes of A Joy are a little too much to take in one sitting.
That’s a minor criticism, however, as this is an absorbing lesson in how to respectfully treat other people’s work while at the same time offering your own perspective. In Hebden’s case this means branching out sufficiently far and wide to avoid potentially routine cover versions with ease. He’s an excellent technician, continually inventive and surprising, and Remixes offers an excellent companion to his studio albums and sessions.