UNKLE - Psyence Fiction
A & M Records.
DJ Shadow's place in musical history was assured he minute he dropped Endtroducing on an unsuspecting world in 1996. After a slow train of hype - indeed, he was once named 'Unsigned Hype' by The Source - he eventually got round to releasing this masterpiece. Expectations may have been fairly high, but NO-ONE was expecting that. It did what Slayer's 'Reign In Blood' had done - it defined its genre, and also did irrepairable damage to it, simply because nothing following it seemed to compare. Massive Attack's Mezzanine just about managed it, but Endtroducing was in a league of its own.
So, when The Private Press was released in 2002, there was a wave of expectation. The popularly held view was that trip-hop had been dormant since Endtroducing (and, to be fair, Mezzanine) because nobody knew how to follow it up. Here, they said, was the master returning to show everyone how it's done. The media responded to the album by calling it a 'triumphant second record'. They were lying. The Private Press WAS triumphant, but it was his third
Having James Lavelle's name on this record is- I'll be blunt - a shambles. The liners reveal that he only player a part in one track, and that's a useless interlude called Breather that isn't even dignified with its own track on the album - shoved, as it is, at the end of Nursery Rhyme. Everything else production-wise, and almost everything musically, is Shadow. Forget the name - Psyence Fiction is DJ Shadow's second album.
Still, it's not hard to see why Shadow agreed to work with Lavelle on the UNKLE project. Expectations on a follow-up to Endtroducing, so soon after the original release, would have been huge. If Psyence Fiction under the name DJ Shadow, rather than UNKLE, it would, in all likelihood, have been savaged, simply for not being Endtroducing.
Lavelle could offer this aversion of public gaze. Just as importantly, he could offer his address book. Lavelle was, at the time, the owner of the world's most chic record label, MoWax. As such, he had links with the world's most chic singers, and could call upon them for help. That, basically, is the concept of Psyence Fiction. Take DJ Shadow, and add vocalists.
This makes it something of a curio in Shadow's catalogue. Ignoring Mashin' On The Motorway (from The Private Press), Shadow has never had vocalists on his albums. But here, he has Kool G Rap, Richard Ashcroft, Badly Drawn Boy, and Thom Yorke, to name but a few. Two guests even provide musical contributions - Jason Newstead (then of Metallica) plays bass on The Knock, and Atlantique play on Chaos.
The vocalists aside, some of the music here doesn't deviate too far from the template set by Endtroducing. UNKLE (Main Title Theme), in particular, could slip onto Endtroducing without missing a beat, were the guitars replaced with pianos. Indeed, guitars are prominent on Psyence Fiction, in a way they aren't on The Private Press or Endtroducing. Mainly, they're drenched in effects (reverb, delay, and such things) in a manner that suggests post-rock, though Nursery Rhyme has a hella tasty distorted riff. As befits the project, Shadow plays around with bringing more styles of music into the mix, but everything is still hip-hop based, and DJ Shadow's magic touch is still instantly identifiable.
The vocalists, for the main, perform at the height of their abilities. Thom Yorke elevates Rabbit In Your Headlights to the point where it stands up to OK Computer's material (though OK Computer was heavily indebted to Endtroducing, so perhaps that was expected). Alice Temple is great on Bloodstain. Mike D of the Beastie Boys does exactly what you'd expect on The Knock, which is either good or bad depending on your view of him, and Badly Drawn Boy, though you wouldn't think it at first, was the perfect choice for the vocal on Nursery Rhyme. Some let the side down - Ian Brown, notably, though I've never liked him, and Richard Ashcroft, who sounds like he's trying too hard to be Liam Gallagher.
Musically, the album features all the standard DJ Shadow touches (terror-filled vocal samples, unpredictable drumming, airy, atmospheric melodies), yet seems somewhat subdued. That's probably down to the vocalists - DJ Shadow clearly isn't used to writing with other people, and taking a back seat to somebody else. The musical highlights of the album come when Shadow works on his own (UNKLE Main Theme), or when he strips it back the furthest (Rabbit In Your Headlights). Nursery Rhyme and Bloodstain are exceptions to this, though that may well be because the vocalists on these tracks demand the least of the listener's attention. (One assumes Richard Ashcroft's huge ego led to Lonely Soul sounding the way it does.)
Psyence Fiction is a strange record, then. It's more interesting than captivating, which is not what you want from a man who made one of the most capitivating records ever just two years previous. Yet moments here are pure genius, and even when Shadow is coasting (Celestial Annihilation, for instance), it's great stuff. Perhaps Psyence Fiction is the greatest indicator of Shadow's genius for just that reason - it's still inferior to his other work, yet most can only dream of these heights.
Definitely worth a look, but not essential.
Within The Genre - 4/5
Outside The Genre - 3/5
Featuring Alice Temple. The guitars are wonderfully atmospheric and loping, and Temple's vocal is just what the song calls for. There's skipping and loose improvising on the drums, as you'd expect with Shadow, and there's even something of a guitar solo. It comes across as Massive Attack's 'Protection' remixed, and that's no bad thing. Halfway through, it drops to a minimalist, twinkling backing, and Temple intones 'Take me softly'. Much obliged, ma'am.
It's tempting to view Rabbit In Your Headlights as the album's peak, but Nursery Rhyme sneaks it. Featuring a restrained, almost bored vocal from Badly Drawn Boy, industrial drums, a popping, insistent bassline, and a riff that could quite easily have been written by Slash, or even one of the Ammot brothers. The album's peak comes when the instruments all fall back, the guitar comes back with a new palm muted riff, and the lyric comes to the surface.....'Won't you sing me a nursery rhyme, to keep me quiet, when you're on fire?' Not just UNKLE's finest track, but one of Shadow's best tracks overall, and probably the best thing Badly Drawn Boy's ever done.
Rabbit In Your Headlights
If you know an UNKLE track - indeed, if you know a DJ Shadow track - it's probably this one. That's partly down to the bleak, spectacular video, and partly down to the fact that it was released as a single while post-OK Computer hysteria was still in full flow. On this track, the music basically takes a back seat, but in doing it creates a wonderful atmosphere, evocative of a rainy night in some foreign city. The song breaks down halfway through, leaving a piano and one of Shadow's typical mortality-fearing vocal samples. Take away this break, and this could easily have been on OK Computer. Which is a compliment of the highest order.