Artist: DJ Shadow
Album: The Less You Know, The Better
Record Label: Verve
Endtroducing… proved to be a damningly accurate name for the debut full-length in DJ Shadow’s career, which has since been defined by infinite comparisons to that early success. It seemed to be one of the CD’s that almost everyone had in the mid and late nineties, nestled into collection that could be heavy on Aphex Twin, bad acid jazz, or classic rock—even my parents didn’t complain when I put it on during car trips. This isn’t to say that Endtroducing… was a generic, blandly crowd-pleasing album—it was compelling in how effectively it catalogued so many good things about a thousand crates of old records, and turned them into something new.
The Less You Know, The Better is 16 tracks and an hour long, and the album as a whole is a bit confusing. Clearance issues forced Shadow to scrap a couple of songs, and after some rearrangement of the album’s sequencing, we’re left with a compilation of tunes that your IPod’s shuffle function could have ordered just as well. Diversity is a good thing, but the lack of cohesion between songs seems to contradict Shadow’s drive toward an old-fashioned, turntable-based method of assembly; this is not a coherent album so much as a scattered collection of music that he’s put together over the past few years.
There are certainly tracks that shine, most of which are the purely instrumental dice-ups that loosely alternate with songs featuring an assortment of vocalists. Tom Vek sings on the worst of these, which has oddly been selected as the single. Laser-beam synth sounds and lightweight guitar rock back Vek’s dull voice, with forgettable results. There are better vocal excursions on the album, however; while there’s something slightly Starbucks about the particularly “chill” quality of “Scale it Back,” which features Little Dragon, there’s no denying the vast depth of sound that Shadow creates around the lazy singing. If you’re listening through standard-issue earbuds, you may feel as though something is missing from the sound, and you’ll be right. The mixing in this track, as on many of the less-busy cuts, puts individuated sounds in unexpected places and then moves them around just as your ears have seized on.
There are some brutal missteps here, especially on guitar-heavy tracks such as “Border Crossing,” which follows the Endtroducing nostalgia of the opening track. In Shadow’s case, nostalgia is not a bad thing, while a left turn like the metal chug of “Border Crossing” takes his music into dull, hammy territory. The track sounds much like the attempts of mid-grade soundtrack composers to add tough-guy thunk to action sequences. There’s a reason why the guy who composed the music for the first Iron Man film got booted in favour of the AC/DC back catalog when sequel time rolled around: some composers just don’t rock quite correctly, and the frenetic excitement of DJ Shadow’s best ventures into more aggressive beats doesn’t carry over into his experimentation with guitars.
There are certainly good things to be found on The Less You Know, The Better, but seeking them out can feel like digging through a crate of bland records while looking for a gem.