On DJ Shadow’s “The Less You Know, The Better”

Redeemed.

It has to be hard being DJ Shadow.  More than most artists, it seems, every move he makes will always be weighted against the impact of his certified classic debut album, 1996’s “Endtroducing…..”

Shadow’s debut was a classic, no one can ever deny that, I’ve gone about that ad nauseam in other posts here.  The follow-up, 2002’s “The Private Press,” was not without moments of brilliance, but I found it a touch too dark.  The Outsider, released in 2006, was at once a middle finger to people who expected him to stay in one place, as well as a celebration of the hyphy music coming out of the Bay Area where Shadow’s from (a very hip-hop thing to do).  So the release of this album had a lot of fans headscratching, curious where he might go. Those who haven’t heard it are already asking, “Does it sound like Endtroducing?”; those who have are asking, “It’s good…but is it DJ Shadow good?

If you’re still wondering, I’ll call it for you: yes, it’s that good.  I think it’s his best album since Endtroducing.  It’s not without its imperfections, but it feels like the most confident, fully realized synthesis of the divergent directions his sound has traveled in over the course of his career.

The album starts by putting the listener on notice with Back to Front (Circular Logic). A sample announces, “I’m back. I forgot my drums,” and then the track unloads a throbby, bass-thickened groove with hurricane scratching and a twangy guitar riff.  It’s his ‘allow me to reintroduce myself’ moment, to remind you no one can program drum sounds like he can, he can scratch his ass off, and he will not feel the need to fill the album with technical displays.

From there the album is a compelling, if not exactly cohesive trip, bouncing from metal [Border Crossing] to folky shoegaze [I’ve Been Trying] to anthemic pop [Warning Call] to a pair of melancholic chamber pieces that echo The Private Press’s ‘Blood on the Motorway’ [Sad and Lonely/(Not So) Sad and Lonely).  Guest spots are limited, but flawlessly incorporated.  Yukimi Nagano of Swedish electro group Little Dragon gives Scale it Back the airy pop sheen it needs, and rappers Talib Kweli and Posdnous [De La Soul’s Plug One] lock their flows right into the tight pocket of Stay the Course, making one of the best hip-hop tracks this year and my favourite song of Shadow’s since anything on his debut.  Since ’95, Shadow’s been claiming he’s a hip-hop artist and we all rolled our eyes, but Stay the Course kicks in and you go, ‘Ohhh, shit.  Okay.’  Not every track is a total winner, ‘Give Me Back the Nights,’ comes across more as Shadow sharing a weird performance art record he found in his crate digging and wanting to share it with people.  Cool in its way, but grates after four minutes.  But I expect every album by anybody to have one clunker on it, so I consider that his free pass.

If I had any criticisms, steer clear of the Deluxe Edition of the album, the bonus tracks kind of dilute the experience, and add nothing to the proper album.  Also, there’s that unfair thing of comparing everything he does to his debut, but I’m only going to nitpick sequencing.  Endtroducing, Private Press and Psyence Fiction were all pretty unified in their whacked out way.  TLYKTB is more of a collection of really good songs that don’t hold together as effectively as an album, leading me to pick and choose when it came time to put it on the ipod, instead of just importing the whole album.  

Fans still waiting for Endtroducing Part II won’t find it with this album, and really, they’ll never find it.  If you can get over that fact The Less You Know, The Better is a better than good entry into DJ Shadow’s catalog with a couple songs that could potentially give him some crossover shine whether he wants it or not.

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