Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid

The Exchange Sessions, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

(Domino; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 15 June 2006

As a Canadian-born Toronto-dweller who studies American history, my summers require me to gad about all sorts of fun places in the States, including Chicago (see you in July, Dom!) and Los Angeles (see you in August, Boogz!), which in turn requires all sorts of buses and planes. Buses are the worst; they’re far cheaper in the States, but you have to stop at all sort of weird towns where you just…wait. I mean, the actual traveling part of travel is never that fun; I’m 6’6’’, so being collapsed behind a reclined seat on the Detroit-Ann Arbor express is hell, even if it’s only an hour trip. But there are destinations, which are where you’re trying to get, and motion, which means you’re getting there, and then there is sitting on whatever rock happens to be available outside the Kalamazoo bus station in Michigan for like 45 minutes while you and everybody else just sort of stare at one another. Both volumes of The Exchange Session give that sense of geographical stagnation. Scratch that—they’re like waiting in Kalamazoo alone, no people to watch, nobody to stare obliquely at your sequined glasses and shake their head slightly, no book to read—only random and passing thoughts to break the monotony.

On my preliminary listen, the first part of The Exchange Session that I actually paid attention to—that actually caught my attention after it drifted a few minutes into the first disc—was five and a half minutes into the second volume. That’s a long wait to get somewhere, especially when three minutes later I got bored again.

It pains me to say that. Steve Reid is a jazz legend and Kieran Hebden (as Four Tet) has been consistently intriguing. But experimental, out, avant-garde, noise, whatever; the good stuff is good for the same reasons that rock of hip hop or pop is good: hooks. You may not like electroclash, or reggae, or country, but genre is just a simplified way of looking at different contexts in which we can place concept, form, and melody. If something “rocks,” it’s rock and roll, right? But not everything that rocks is good, and not everything that pulses works on a dance floor. With more experimental genres the idea is the same. Crystalline melodies like that of “Toxic” or “1 Thing” may not be as appealing to certain listeners if snorted through a saxophone, or played at corrosive levels on a handmade rewired guitar through three dozen effects patches, but the basic result is compelling, because all music is good when it is arousing and has direction and flow to keep it engaging. Which is why I’ll throw A Vintage Burden or Tasankokaiku in your Destroyer face, and only talk melody as a defense. Rubies is great, but we don’t have to argue about why the others are as good from different sides of a canyon, and The Exchange Session, as interesting an idea as it is, shouldn’t assume it can escape these criteria because it’s an experiment.

I’m not even sure who I’m arguing with; I’m just ranting as a means to deal with how aggravating parts of these discs are. Not even aggravating—just… there. “Morning Prayer” has a lot of drums being hit s l o w l y under a bass/reed duet. I suppose it’s kind of like waking up, but it’s very hazy, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather sit through 85 episodes of Romper Room to start my day instead. “Soul Oscillations” is a bit more interesting; about 5 minutes in, the drums and percussive melodies come together to create an interesting groove, but beyond the rhythm there’s little to hold onto, and the fascinating vibraphonics get stale. “Electricity and Drum will Change Your Mind” didn’t change mine; it’s basically the same piece as “Oscillations,” played slightly heavier and with a louder reed solo. And more buzzing, if that tickles your fancy.

Vol. 2 sees “Hold Down the Rhythms, Hold Down the Machines” actually throwing some jittery chords over a thrumming drum line. Hebden’s curious gate effects and other random noises actually highlight the lush progress, fueling Reid’s drums, wrapping them up in tight packages and throwing them forward. It’s an interesting piece, and the obvious highlight of both sets. Inchoate bands everywhere will listen and imagine that when the sounds petered out, somebody probably shouted, “we really rocked that one!” Yes—that one. But “Noemie,” though interesting in a few spots, is really too blurry to get a hold of, and when “We Dream Free” finally lets loose, you can hear the rhythm hiccup all over the place. Mistakes? I don’t know, but I do know that it makes it a pain to listen to, especially because you can hear people laughing on the track when they get back…well, on track. If you wait around till the final three minutes, it gets kind of cool. Kind of, but I’d get back on the bus.

Basically, this is the indie-out equivalent of Yet Another B.B. King Live Album. We don’t need it, we likely don’t want it, and its release can only be justified as a requirement of the sessions from which it came. There are moments, brief and passing, where we hear what this union could have been like, with more focus, some editing, and a little less reliance on intuition. We’re only getting The Complete [insert famous jazz title here] Sessions forty and fifty years after the fact; could they not have released this as an edited number now, and only released the full two-disc version in 2056 when nobody was around to be embarrassed?