What has the seemingly endless integration of technology into our daily lives done to us? D.J. Shadow takes a stab at an answer with his fourth studio album, The Less You Know, the Better. The title, Shadow explains, is “partly about being stuck overnight at some airport terminal in Dallas and having CNN and Fox blasting my brain out for no apparent reason.” A D.J. commenting on technology and the press many not seem interesting, but Shadow is a bit different.
Nowadays anybody looking to “D.J.” can simply load up a software package like Abelton, ACID Pro, Reason or Scratch Live and mix up the contents of their mp3 collection. D.J. Shadow is something of a dinosaur in the digital age. He still spins vinyl, extracting small snippets onto a sampling pad and blending them together with other fragmented recordings live to make music. In short, he’s a real D.J.
D.J. Shadow is one of the first and last great turntablists, and reinvented trip hop and instrumental hip-hop back in the 90s. Having once turned down the opportunity to score an Apple commercial for fear of selling himself out, D.J. Shadow has seen the rise of iTunes singles and the fall of a music industry “decimated by the internet.”
“I’m back...I forgot my drum...” a raspy sample declares at the beginning of lead track “Back to Front (Circular Logic).” Indeed, D.J. Shadow is back after a five-year hiatus, and so is his signature style of drumming. It’s a bit like having three drummers in a music study room in Lincoln Hall, with perfectly synchronized breaks at a tempo twice what you would expect. The percussion throughout the album is excellent, and is among the best D.J. Shadow has ever produced.
For the second time in his career, D.J. Shadow has included guest vocalists on his album. This time around, Talib Kweli has a great verse on “Stay The Course” and London experimental rocker Tom Vek is featured on the enjoyable Bloc Party-esque jam “Warning Call.” It’s refreshing to hear a good vocal track, especially with D.J. Shadow playing the one-man-band behind the vocalist.
Musical diversity, another trademark of D.J. Shadow, is also prominently featured throughout. With one of the largest private record collections in the world, D.J. Shadow incorporates samples from every obscure nook in the music world. It’s a mélange of jazzy piano melodies, Latin American guitar riffs and ethereal vocal samples that allows D.J. Shadow to compose chilled out tunes like “Redeemed” and “Scale It Back.”
Every great album tells a story, but the lack of a clear narrative on this album is disappointing. The almost-unlistenable “Border Crossing,” which is essentially 3:36 of incoherent heavy metal samples, defines the feeling in the first half of the album. It seems D.J. Shadow intended to contrast this grating, technological noise with a more relaxed, ambient atmosphere in the second half, but he never really succeeds in doing so.
Just as a relaxed mood is established on the album, along comes “I Gotta Rokk” with its music video made up of internet meme clips, and it's back to square one. This is not to say that D.J. Shadow should only produce relaxing music, but I wish he had made the album a bit easier to listen to end to end.
“Circular Logic (Front to Back)” suggests how a fan like myself might feel about this D.J. Shadow release. A sample says, “This man started it all, and they called him a loser. Ever since they’ve been crying for more and more of his magic, some of them can’t breathe without it.” It’s nice to have a few albums that stand apart from all others in your collection, and can always be relied on to put you in a good mood. D.J. Shadow's Endtroducing and The Private Press are among my favorites since they’re always great to listen to. The Less You Know, the Better doesn’t compare with these albums, but it’s worth at least one unbiased listen from D.J. Shadow fans.
There's a war going on right now, and it's for your ears. Artists will do almost anything to coax you into listening to their music as listening audiences are still drowned out by increasing levels of loudness in music or the next greatest thing to come up on The Hype Machine. The Less You Know, the Better won’t be remembered for its artistic quality, but rather a missed opportunity for an elder statesman in the music industry to give us an idea of where we’re headed, or a warning.