Another day, another freebie that sets the internet alight—though to be fair, 0181 is a pretty generous offering even by the standards of today's content-hungry masses. This 38-minute, free-to-download album gathers sketches, castoffs and other miscellany Kieran Hebden recorded between his first releases as Four Tet in 1997 and his second solo LP, Pause, in 2001. In a sense this was Hebden's exploratory phase, leading from humble DJ Shadow-inspired beginnings towards the mature, cinematic sound that prevailed throughout his recent records.
With the releases of that era in mind, there are no huge surprises here. The standard Four Tet tropes—twinkly sped-up guitar loops, soft-edged breakbeats, tuneful sample-collage—are all present and correct. The appeal of 0181, then, is largely a product of its structuring. This is more a mixtape than a sequenced album, with no tracklist and many of the 20-odd "tracks" just 30-second sketches that drop tantalising hints without outstaying their welcome. It's refreshing to hear Four Tet's ideas in a less precious context, less shackled to song form. In fact, many of these tracks—such as the elegiac piano loop at 3:30, or the moody, vinyl-crackled rumbles and music box melody at 7:45—are all the more affecting for not being expanded on (a point he may do well to note given Pink's tendency to drag).
Of course, the risk with such an approach is that the record becomes a disjointed affair, its contents fine in isolation but discordant as a whole. But far from being a careless assemblage of cutting room floor snippets dumped on the world by an artist going through old hard drives—and despite being free—0181 reflects a lot of thought and care on Hebden's part. Compelling oddities that fall outside the expected Four Tet remit appear throughout. The gorgeous, almost-gamelan textures at 24:20 would certainly merit expansion; a rolling, understated beat-loop at around 27:00 benefits from its concision. Elsewhere, themes from released recordings of the time are fleshed out with intriguing results—in particular, roomy, lightly psychedelic jazz edits in the style of "Misnomer" (from Dialogue) appear at 13:45 and 20:00.
Still, there are moments of over-familiarity. This record is most dull when it sounds precisely how you might expect it to sound, presenting a series of highly idiomatic offcuts from a past era. The bright, harp-like tones and warm breakbeats starting at 4:00 and the marriage of trip-hop bump and folksy guitar at 27:45 both stay well within familiar Four Tet territory, and as such don't add much to his ouevre. But for the most part 0181 is an entirely worthy addition to Hebden's discography—certainly not as weighty or fully-formed as a proper LP, but not so flimsy as to be dismissed as a side-note.