Only The Shadow Knows

Better, stronger, faster: DJ Shadow
First Avenue
DJ Shadow
The Private Press

The voice is snide and female and imperti-nent and unyielding: "What you gon' do now?" You can almost visualize the woman poking her chin over the hunched shoulder of DJ Shadow as he struggles to concentrate on the turntable work necessary to construct "Monsylabik." He reaches across and speeds up the bass bump, cuts between records faster, reduces her voice to its component phonemes. Yet despite this show of mastery, the taunts still spin back into the mix. "What you gon' do this time?" The breakbeats come heavier, stutter and stagger, and regain their footing with abrupt grace--all as if to say, What do you want from me, anyway?

Well, duh, we want perfection, Shadow. A debut masterpiece is no way to start off a career, especially when, as with Endtroducing...DJ Shadow, the artwork flaunts its perfect sense of composition in a DJ culture often willing to dangle from the loose ends of its own bricolage. The trouble with being a perfectionist, after all, is that you lead people to expect masterpieces every time out. Especially when you take five years between albums. Who does this DJ Shadow think he is, anyway--Boston?

The world upon which Shadow sprung Endtroducing...DJ Shadow was not quite unsuspecting. A volley of earlier Shadow (a.k.a. Josh Davis) singles both necessitated the creation of the term trip hop and rendered that term inadequate. But the sustained mood and vision of Endtroducing wasn't just new to hip hop or electronic music--in fact, no one in the rock era had come close. One Shadow fan recently asked me what other electronic artists she might enjoy, and I was stumped. Nobody else really does this, because nobody else has figured out how to advance what Entroducing began.

Including Davis, who has finally released a proper followup, The Private Press. Aware that regardless of his intentions, he's going to repeat himself, Davis heroically and deliberately goes about the business of repeating himself. I hear no direct sonic quotes from Endtroducing, but Private Press follows closely in that album's path, only seeking to make the tracks more complex, more ambitious. You know, better, stronger, faster.

What's amazing is how often Private Press does surpass its precursor. Last time out, Shadow interjected a sample that introduced him as "your favorite DJ savior." Now, after an elliptical snippet from some French announcer, we hear "I'm a bad/Motherfuckin' DJ" courtesy of DJ Hollywood's "Gangster Rap." Then, Shadow's standard rhythmic trick--he lowers a deep bass boom on the first of four beats, then leaves it to lag into the second with a brooding swagger--kicks in underneath. The overall effect is both heavier and more nimble than anything the fellow has attempted in the past.

Or maybe you dug the minimalist repetition of Endtroducing's "Stem/Long Stem"? The new edition's "Giving Up the Ghost" starts with a Reich-like pattern, stacks drums, guitar, synthesizers on top, then clears it all away and returns to the hypnotic infrastructure down below. Comparatively, the once baroque Endtroducing sounds spare--not chintzy, not dated, but somewhat modest.

There's a nagging sense of overcompensation that permeates these compositions. "I find it hard to fit the music to the mood," some British fellow confesses at one point. Shadow extends the bloke's words--"And then. I find. Just the right. Thing."--over a particularly dinky breakbeat. The beats grow heavier, more intricate, and you hear the sound of a worried DJ losing himself and his worries in the mix as fills converge from the edges and the track expands to match the fittingly vulgar acronym GDMFSOB.

When Davis next decides to integrate a straightforward rap--"Mashin' on the Motorway," featuring MC extraordinaire Lateef as "your friendly neighborhood speed demon"--it's as if the DJ is challenging himself to see how many disparate elements he can integrate into the flow. But as Lateef rambles over an ascending bassline, even this track is subsumed into the whole, particularly the electronic crash simulation that ends it. And then a voice intones, "And now, eternity." A gloomy Bach-like organ introduces the next track, "Blood on the Motorway," leading to a ponderous tromp of piano chords, adorned with the electronic flutter and swirl that always remind me of watching PBS in 1975. The track progresses slowly, with less a mood of suspense than delay. Sure enough, a simpering voice declares, "You have not betrayed your ideals. Your ideals betrayed you." Uh, whatever, dude. Shut up, I'm trying to listen to the music.

This moment is jarring not just because it distracts from the mood, but also because it's Shadow's first misstep in close to an hour's worth of music--a double off the left-field wall after eight perfect innings. As such, it's also a relief. Endtroducing was moody, but it overflowed with mastery and surprise. Private Press is tense and obsessed with surpassing expectations, a particular modernist performance anxiety. And, once he's flubbed, Shadow is free to launch into "You Can't Go Home Again," seven minutes of turntablist brilliance that dissects and rearranges numerous sonic elements, including snippets of a vaguely Asian melody that flutter in the background. At last, he is free.

Such obsessive and flawless studio arrangement is what made Shadow's recent First Avenue performance redundant. Since the performer had little to add to his recorded music, we were there primarily to pay homage. Yet he couldn't keep still. He'd adjust turntable knobs, interject a few crossfader twitches, run a bass sample underneath. "What's he doing up there?" I asked everyone I talked to. But the answer was obvious--Shadow was gilding his lilies till they glittered. You couldn't help but feel that Afrika Bambaataa and them cats had it easy. All they were looking for was the perfect beat. DJ Shadow wants perfection itself.

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