As with every other period in history, roughly 95 percent of the music produced right now doesn't significantly innovate, invoke danger, challenge, or do a lot more than reiterate standard practice. Sometimes, this is disappointing. For example, not too much on the new album by Londoner Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, pushes the IDM envelope. But speaking as someone who worked in a mailroom for a year, envelopes and the motion thereof is pretty uncompelling. It's probably not a huge sin to promise brilliance in the first couple minutes of a song and then follow it up with another two or three or six that are simply agreeable, as with the bulk of Everything Ecstatic. "Joy," the opening cut, even maintains its initial momentum. First, Buddy Rich falls down a flight of stairs, landing on a fuzz-bass drone that resembles the Chemical Brothers' "Elektrobank." Then it regains consciousness to the strains of bell-like guitar chords. Then robot locusts attack. But most of Everything Ecstatic just glides along leisurely, the songs milking their ideas until anything startling has fallen out of them. The first moments of "Smile Around the Face" (the creeping rhythm section of Sly & the Family Stone's stoner-funk masterwork There's a Riot Goin' On cavorting on a carousel with low-rider hydraulics) and "And Then Patterns" (the Beastie Boys' brutal "Looking Through a Barrel of a Gun" buffed to a textureless matte finish, then varnished with viscous vibraphone) are good indications of what the last moments will sound like. But as nonflux goes, rather pretty.
Surrounded by Silence
Still, there's a fine line between "signature sound" and "heard one, heard 'em all." Certainly, that line is elusive and arbitrary, but by now Atlanta-born, Barcelona-based producer Scott Herren, aka Prefuse 73, has spun his one wheel a little too often for it to stir up any surprises. Herren specializes in clickety-blip hand-clappy noises, whirring harmonic choir sounds, ghostly feminine voices, muted smooth-jazz keyboard buzzes, and ambient air conditioner hums—and he flogs them to the point that a hesitant listener is more likely to move from intrigue to disinterest than the other way around. On Prefuse 73's fourth album, Herren, who also records as Savath vs. Savalas, uses his guests in much the same airy, window-dressing manner he uses his "Windowlicker"-lite vocal samples; e.g., Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino's turn on "We Go Our Own Way" and the A Day at the Races stateroom-scene claustrophobia of "Am I Gone" (featuring Piano Overlord, Broadcast, and Cafe Tacuba, pitted "vs." each other in the album credits like the song was a sort of indie-mellow Hell in a Cell). The beats dull down the edges as well, from Camu's "Now You're Leaving," with production that resembles a stunted Hi-Tek, to the breezily bucolic "Hideyaface," which lacks the dummy-smack menace you'd hope for from a collaboration between El-P and Ghostface (El's original gutter-funk-guitar beat slays this), to "Just the Thought," which rips GZA and Masta Killa from their Shaw Brothers milieu and expects them to throw 'bows in a Wong Kar-wai film. Over the course of an EP like 2002's The '92 vs. '02 Collection or scoring a Foot Locker commercial, this can be a fetching sound. But Herren squanders his creative good will by stopping it before it grows deeper or denser or more prone to bump. Dude, this is hip-hop. Give us Surrounded by Subwoofers.
The Milk of Human Kindness
Apparently, having Canadian laptopper Dan Snaith doing business as Manitoba was just too confusing for the easily bamboozled fans of the Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba, who sued Snaith into changing his handle to Caribou. So this isn't the solid debut it might first seem, though the excitement here is more palpable than Snaith's previous work. Human Kindness functions best when it puts the Can in Canadian laptop psych, where Krautrockian pulses carve an autobahn through the backwoods ("Barnowl") and wed Tago Mago to Ummagumma, showering them with snow instead of rice ("Bees"). There's also a decent Mercury Rev rip (the crescendo- persuading toy/electric piano duet "Yeti"), a track that improves on the basic Prefuse 73 template ("Pelican Narrows," which solves the dilemma of clap-beat redundancy by giving it a hell of a snare to work with), and enough songs driven by motorized, beat-focused chords to make an acoustic guitar sound like a machine as supposedly cold and calculated as a synthesizer. Except that here, the synthesized sounds retain heat and life.
Prefuse 73 plays Chop Suey with Battles, Beans, and Suspence at 8 p.m. Tues., May 17. $12 adv.