DJ Shadow's second proper album is nothing if not disorientating. It opens with "(Letter From Home)", which sounds like a voiceover from a 1950s American television melodrama on its return journey from outer space. It leads the listener into a collage of an album full of music that appears deconstructed but not quite reconstructed, a cluster of fragmentary notes and sounds that nestle together not unhappily, but without the kind of guiding purpose necessary to mould them into great music. Shadow's sound seems to be stranded in an awkward place: to pick examples of artists operating out on the extremes of roughly similar territory, it's stuck between the minimalist, looped, big beat hedonism of Fatboy Slim and the intricately detailed patchwork produced by The Avalanches. Somehow sounding simultaneously cluttered and sparse, "The Private Press" is much more about rhythm than melody (this probably being the only trait that might lead it to be labelled as dance music). Unfortunately, Shadow's habit of throwing apparently random elements at each other reduces the result to some kind of suffocatingly hip (hop) jumble sale.
Arguably the music on "The Private Press" is no different from the kind of backing tracks he provided for UNKLE's marvellous "Psyence Fiction" project, but that album also benefitted from 'proper' songs and a parade of celebrity larynxes to sing them, so perhaps it's more than coincidental that it's on the few examples of 'proper' songwriting that "The Private Press" drifts closest to fine. "Six Days" is one such, a corporate culture hoe-down that drips 70s Fender Rhodes organic soul chic. "Blood On The Motorway" is equally fine: it seems that familiarity breeds contentment, the song being built on a piano loop that bears more than a passing resemblance to the introduction to Patti Smith's "Pissing In A River". It builds gradually into a tottering, ramshackle structure that threatens to tumble at any second, but at least has enough about it to coalesce into something memorable, briefly banishing the scrappy air of novelty that sinks much of the album. (And is there some kind of contractual obligation that requires all Mo' Wax vinyl to sound as if the stylus is trailing a great wodge of fluff?) Similarly the single "You Can't Go Home Again" is a goodie, a pulsing electroid roadtrip that sets out from what sounds a lot like Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa".
But it's too little, too late. The sleeve of "The Private Press" looks like the aftermath of some gruesome industrial accident in a letraset factory, which is not an inaccurate description of the music it contains. He cuts, he pastes, he samples, he mixes, he scratches, but for the most part the results are nebulous, only drawn usefully together when they approximate more traditional musical forms. It's a brave, but ultimately unsatisfying, album.
DJ SHADOW Endtroducing (Mo Wax)
My belated acquisition of Josh Davis' debut album "Endtroducing " has helped make a little more sense of DJ Shadow's methodology of vinyl collage than this years disappointingly diffuse "The Private Press" offered. The cover photograph alone is a classic, a gatefold shot of a gloriously overstocked second-hand vinyl emporium: many happy hours can be wasted recognising album covers in the racks, although it seems strange that this shop doesn't seem to have a proportionately large Dylan section. And, like some perfectly coiled moebius strip, the music it enfolds sounds as if it could have come from any number of those dog-eared albums on the cover and maybe it did. "Endtroducing " is a perfectly balanced confection of ghostly piano riffs, film dialogue samples, funk guitar and stuttering hip hop beats, all coalescing to create music that appears prematurely mature (rather than prematurely aged), as if it had fallen through a portal in the space-time continuum and had been mouldering unplayed on a shelf somewhere since 1972.
During "Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt" an unidentified drummer talks of learning his technique by imitating what he heard on records, something that could of course apply equally to Shadow himself. When your ear settles on a fragment of melody that appears comfortably familiar, it also sounds as if it has been processed and bent out of shape so much that it represents a blurred photocopy of what it may or may not once have been. So it's impossible to tell whether that's really the introduction to Everything But The Girl's "Each And Every One" at the beginning of "Changeling", or Justin Hayward's "Forever Autumn" that filters up through "Stem/Long Stem" and "Organ Donor". There's some subtle humour at play in these grooves as well: the sole phrase uttered during the brief "Why Hip Hop Sucks In '96" is "It's the money", and could that dialogue on "Mutual Slump" really be taken from the Olivia Newton-John roller disco disaster movie "Xanadu"?
As always with DJ Shadow's music there are more questions than answers, but in an age where its increasingly rare to find albums that provoke inquisition "Endtroducing " has rightly become revered as a classic of its type. (And the man's a preacher as well as a teacher, with a suggested listening list "for further research on the evolution of sample-based music" amongst the credits.) As the cover sticker NME quote blares, "DJ Shadow is the Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page of the sampler", which must make "Endtroducing " his "Electric Ladyland" or "Led Zeppelin IV", at least.
DJ SHADOW The Outsider (Island)
DJ Shadows third album seems to have met with a frosty reception from the cognoscenti, and, for all the mans brave talk of not being content to regurgitate the same music he was making a decade ago (c.f. Oasis, whose Stop The Clocks compilation did pretty much exactly that, without a hint of irony or even regret) Id much rather be listening to the crate-rifling collage of Endtroducing .. than this directionless splurge.
Lets consider the good bits first. This Time (Im Gonna Try It My Way) is infectious, mating a vocal of unknown provenance to real instrumentation and a string section; its reminiscent of Gnarls Barkley at their modern Motown best. Backstage Girl, a groupie tale remade for the MySpace generation, is surprisingly rockist in both sound and story for a DJ Shadow album, and when it turns into a drum solo sandwiched between sludgy proto-metal riffs I defy listeners of a certain age or predilection to resist tracking the synapse triggers all the way back to Black Sabbaths Rat Salad. Enuff employs the talents of guests Q-Tip and Lateef The Truth Speaker to worthwhile effect, its back-snapping beats providing four of the records more memorable minutes.
But then theres the rest of it: the underwhelming rap-by-numbers numbers (3 Freaks, Dats My Part), the potentially promising but eventually toothless post-Katrina diatribes (Seein Thangs, Broken Levee Blues), the lost-sounding punk thrash of Artifact and a clutch of unconvincing collaborations with members of Kasabian and Stateless (whose Chris James sounds like a particularly listless Chris Martin on You Made It), thin gruel attempts to approximate the glory days of Unkles Psyence Fiction. Triplicate / Something Happened That Day rifles pages from the John Cage songbook, only to send them fluttering through what seems like a moment of uneasy calm from a spaghetti western soundtrack. Even more baffling is What Have I Done, in which Charalambides Christina Carter dreamily mutters soft-focus faux-Virgin Suicides dialogue over a lushly orchestrated soundscape.
Admittedly, with its biting, visceral production, The Outsider sounds great in places, but to what end? More power to Josh Davis for bravely turning his tables on the kind of painstakingly assembled cut n paste patchworks that have characterised his career so far, but rather less for forsaking them in favour of this scattershot pile of lumpen ideas.
DJ SHADOW/AKALA/STATELESS Carling Academy, Brixton 16 December 2006
Yes, Brixton might be a bit outside my usual gig-going radius (not much chance of catching the last train back to Preston from there), but when a friend asked if I was interested in going to see the man sometimes known as Josh Davis there I couldnt rightly refuse, what with owning and enjoying both of the proper albums hed released up to that point. Unfortunately, the subsequent release of this years The Outsider dampened my enthusiasm a little, Shadow abandoning his painstaking pointillist assemblages pieced together from fragments of dozens of forgotten records for a more conventional hip-hop/indie-rock aesthetic. I mean, how excited is it possible to be by a record whose cover sticker boasts of appearances by members of Kasabian?
Cementing the albums lumbering approach, Leeds band Stateless set is thudding to a close as we arrive at the Academy, sounding for all the world like Coldplay gone baggy. More entertaining is Akala, winner of the best hip-hop act gong at this years MOBO awards. Like precisely nothing Ive ever seen before but then again, Ive been to exactly zero hip-hop gigs before amidst all the crowd-rousing pantomime call and response routines and a somewhat samey and repetitive backing clatter theres a genuinely impressive verbal dexterity, fired by a righteous anger at both the state of the world and hip-hop itself. Serendipitously, almost all his songs seem to reference Brixton; wonder how well that went down in the other cities the tour stopped off at.
So, how does Davis, essentially a guy who makes records from bits of other records, present himself in the live arena? Quite spectacularly, as it happens, and, for the second time in the evening, like nothing Ive ever seen before. He addresses the crowd from a podium surrounded above and below by video screens, which scorch retinas with overloaded images for the entire duration of the show, and from a few tables of equipment he summons up what has to be the loudest, most powerful sonic assault Ive experienced in the name of entertainment, with low frequencies so intense they set larynxes rattling. A crowded setlist weaves together disparate strands from his three solo albums and his work with the Unkle collective, the best bits being old Endtroducing .. stalwarts like Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, The Number Song and a version of Organ Donor spun out close to the point of nebulousness by Shadows showmanship something he wittily acknowledges by preceding it with a textual justification. Some gymnastic vocal crowd-baiting by guest rapper Lateef The Truth Speaker is also extended close to the point of diminishing credibility, but nevertheless proves a marked contrast with the us/them division of all but a handful of concerts Ive attended.
As engineering work had scythed through the back end of the train timetable we had to leave before the end of the encore. When we made our excuses Shadow was hammering through something that bore a marked resemblance to Unkles Nursery Rhyme, missing out on the version of Midnight In A Perfect World, possibly my favourite DJ Shadow track, which had closed the previous nights set.
Of course, the $64 question is, How much of what we heard was actually produced live on the night? Im not sure it actually matters. If the goal of a performance is to communicate, Davis certainly achieved that by any means necessary, getting the Academys sweaty mass heaving to his bidding.