Friday, January 4, 2013

DJ Shadow - "The Less You Know, The Better" (LP review)

First, let's get this out of the way: at the risk of damning with faint praise, "The Less You Know, The Better" is much, much better than 2006's dreadful "The Outsider".  Second, owning easily a linear foot or more of his considerable discography, I'm no casual DJ Shadow fan.

OK, now I'll begin with a slight detour.  A while back we watched Kevin Smith's storytelling special "Too Fat For 40".  Paraphrasing from memory, Smith said something to the effect that classic films like "Clerks" (1994) and "Chasing Amy" (1997) were the kind of films the he could make in his early- and mid-20s, based on who he was and where he was but the successful, 40 year old Kevin Smith simply can't make those kinds of films again.

I can't help but compare Kevin Smith to Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow.  Perhaps DJ Shadow simply can no longer make landmarks like 1996's "Endtroducing....." or 1994's "What Does Your Soul Look Like", both of which Davis also made in his early- and mid-20s.  DJ Shadow has stated many times that he wants to move on from "Endtroducing....." and not be stuck in that rut.  I get & respect that; however, it has just occurred to me that's he stuck in another rut, an anti-"Entroducing....." rut.  "The Less You Know, The Better" is simply "The Private Press", take 3*.

"The Private Press" is where Shadow introduced his current stripped-down, sparse sound.  It wasn't as dense, and incorporated fewer samples and instead focused on more subtle changes (not unlike Plastikman).  It worked on "The Private Press" (which I admit didn't fully make sense to me until it was paired with 2003's remix LP "The Private Repress"), in part because all the songs had a unified vision (which I can only describe using words like "clinical" or "antiseptic").  "The Outsider" continued that sound, but with an unfocused or unclear vision and too many guests, many of whom were -- let me check my desk reference, yes I can use this phrase -- "sucka MCs".

Fortunately there are no sucka MCs on TLYKTB.  But the lack of focus is still a problem; it is almost as if Shadow approached this LP like it was a mix LP and points were awarded for clever genre-bending.  In comparison, 1998's "Psyence Fiction" was a grab bag of guest artists and their different styles, but the unifying theme could be classified as "the soundtrack to the weird sci-fi movie that only James Lavelle can see".

On TLYKTB, rather than prove his command of his record collection by sampling from various genres for the creation of something entirely new, he's "adding to this pile, whether [he] wants to admit it or not".  Some examples:
  • "Border Crossing" -- this sounds like the kind of uninspired hip-hop / metal cross over stuff that formed the basis of 1997's surprisingly bland "Spawn: The Album".  This song is very similar to "Artifact" from "The Outsider" (that's bad); sadly this just doesn't slam like "Drums of Death" from "Psyence Fiction"
  • "I Gotta Rokk" -- songs that talk about rocking typically don't; this does not compare favorably to, say, "The Number Song" which really does rock
  • "Scale It Back" -- technically this is Little Dragon guesting on a DJ Shadow song, but this could easily be the other way around
Some of the songs are pretty good:
The worst song on here is "Give Me Back The Nights", based on a spoken word, teenage screed of unknown origin.  I can't tell if it is supposed to be serious or a humorous Corey Flood tribute, but it doesn't work in either context.  In 1994 he used a fevered prison recording in the break for "Lost and Found"; it made no sense either but was used to better effect.

In summary, this is a good but not essential record. It does remove the bad taste of "The Outsider", but when I compare "The Less You Know, The Better" to recent innovative releases from artists like Andy Stott (e.g., "We Stay Together", "Passed Me By") or Balam Acab (e.g., "See Birds"), I can't help but think of a 40 year old Kevin Smith.

Standout songs: "Stay The Course", "Back To Front (Circular Logic)", "Tedium", "Redeemed", "Run For Your Life", "Circular Logic (Front To Back)"

Skip 'em songs:  "Give Me Back The Nights"

Summary: 6/10

Bonus Link: DJ Shadow giving a track-by-track summary for Billboard Magazine

Bonus Reviews: NPR, Spin, Pitchfork, Metacritic

* = An unkind reading of some of the song titles ("Stay The Course", "Tedium", "Going Nowhere", "I've Been Trying") suggests that at some level he knows he's recycling material.

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