Release Date: Oct 4, 2011
Record label: Verve
With its head-snapping break-beat collages and ruminative downtempo jams, Josh Davis' latest recalls Endtroducing..., a 1996 debut so finely tooled and widely praised, it was hard not to hear everything that followed it as one long sophomore slump. That seems the subtext to the title here, and while this album may lack his debut's soul-jazz seamlessness, it compensates with bipolar freakiness. "Border Crossing" is a guitar blast imagining Lars Ulrich with a third arm and a funk transplant.
DJ Shadow’s defiant 2006 joint The Outsider boasted stunning production but underwhelming thematics. Not so here, which transcends sonic genres with a mature exploration of a global village too distracted to notice it’s shorting itself. From psychedelic instrumentals “Enemy Lines” and the two-parter “Sad and Lonely” and “(Not So) Sad and Lonely” to head-knocking tag-teams like “I’m Excited” (with Afrikan Boy) and “Stay the Course” (with Talib Kweli and De La Soul’s immortal Posdnuos), Shadow’s musical embrace is warm and wide.
Constructed entirely from samples, DJ Shadow's 1996 debut, Endtroducing …, was a genuinely pioneering record, although this approach has been repeated so many times since that what was once futuristic can now feel nostalgic. On only his fourth album in 15 years, 39-year-old Californian Josh Davis uses longer samples and more conventional song structures to make The Less You Know, the Better feel like a genre-hopping mixtape. There's old skool hip-hop (Back to Front), riff-shredding heavy metal (Border Crossing, I Gotta Rokk), pastoral soul (I've Been Trying) and eerie dubs.
Disliking things is easier than liking them. This digital age phenomenon isn’t exactly a new discovery, but it does feel much more prominent in the age of unfiltered opinion sharing and thought diarrhea that is message boards and user reviews. I’m not immune from this, but when it comes to certain albums I can sometimes sense that it will be one of those releases for which everything is in doubt.
Among the moody trippy-hippy-hoppy tunes of DJ Shadow’s monumental debut Endtroducing was a short, cheeky track entitled ‘Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ‘96’. The rap-spoofing groove lasts a few seconds before the composition abruptly ends with a damning voice declaring, “It’s the money”. Whereas back then Shadow condemned the detrimental effect that unrestrained excess was having upon the musical landscape, it now seems to be musicians’ lack of capital which really gets the Shadow’s goat.
Oddly, The Less You Know the Better sounds like it could be a greatest hits album, if such a thing made sense for DJ Shadow. And just as a hits comp wouldn't make much sense for Shadow, neither does this album. There are nods to Entroducing's smooth jazz-funk grooves and beat-heavy hip-hop instrumentals (the stuff his fans seem most stuck on) along-side a decidely mixed bag of guitar mash-ups a la The Private Press, shades of UNKLE (though nothing approaching that Shadow-produced project's power), disappointing guest raps and nods to Bay Area Hyphy circa The Outsider, and the moody instrumental soundscapes that have been Shadow hallmarks throughout his career.
“He’s still at it?!” Not my words, but those of [a]DJ Shadow[/a]’s own painfully self-deprecating press release, on which the word “genius” has been scratched out by me and replaced with “wankery”. Yet just because the goateed trip-hopper knows that anything he releases now is likely to be unfavourably compared to his 1996 masterpiece ‘[b]Endtroducing…[/b]’, it doesn’t mean he’s managed to stop the rot. ‘[b]The Less You Know, The Better[/b]’, his first albumproper since 2006’s ‘[b]The Outsider[/b]’, is, frankly, a bit of a mess.
Everyone is sick of hearing about how DJ Shadow will never top Endtroducing…, most of all Shadow himself. But what about those of us still holding the torch for Psyence Fiction, his insanely hyped, tragically flawed, and surprisingly enduring collaboration with James Lavelle as UNKLE? With hindsight, the buzz surrounding that release seems quaint, but it came along during a time when CD storage towers were still proudly manicured physical manifestations of their owner's listening habits. Meaning it was worth sitting through all 13 false endings of "Lonely Soul" and the wackest Beastie Boys verses ever put to wax because you certainly weren't getting peak performances from Kool G Rap, Badly Drawn Boy, and Thom Yorke on a single disc anywhere else.
Let’s get this out of the way: DJ Shadow made Endtroducing. Can we move on? Well, I suppose not, because the fact is, DJ Shadow pioneered a genre, and it’s cursed him for the rest of his career. Instrumental hip-hop would not be what it is today were it not for his debut album, and Shadow will never escape the expectations bestowed upon him by its success.
DJ Shadow's 1996 masterpiece, Endtroducing... , was a game-changer for sample-based music. But in the 15 years since, the collage techniques that amazed the world have become so easy to pull off on a home computer that his methodology no longer puts him above the crowd. His debut stands up, thanks to success in conveying a rich, all-encompassing mood.
It’s unfair to compare every new record to a back catalog masterwork, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hold artists to a higher standard. DJ Shadow may end up only having one Endtroducing… in him, but that’s one more than most musicians can claim. His new album, The Less You Know, The Better, lacks the cohesiveness of his best work. While it’s not as stylistically scattershot as 2006’s The Outsider, it fails to immerse listeners in the same way as his landmark debut or even sophomore record.
Something of a return to form – just don’t expect an Endtroducing beater. Ian Wade 2011 DJ Shadow – aka Josh Davis – emerged during the last decade of the 20th century, helping to bring the art of turntablism to a new crowd outside of the hip hop arena. And didn’t he do well. His debut, 1996’s Endtroducing, is a disc which stands alone, towering above any potential parallels from would-be peers.