Review Summary: Consistently walking the line between charmingly eclectic and annoyingly eratic.
What do you do when your first album is a genre-defining masterpiece? Shadow’s debut, Endtroducing, is still flagged up as a milestone not only in trip-hop, but for music in general, being the first record ever to feature nothing but vinyl record samples. Many DJ Shadow fans are still awaiting a ‘true’ successor to this album, however the man himself has been consistently reluctant to make an album that significantly resembles his opening salvo, opting instead for an increasingly versatile range of influences, which range from metal to indie rock to his local hyphy scene. This decision is fully understandable – the impact of Endtroducing is likely never going to be fully recaptured and DJ Shadow is fully aware of this. His most recent effort, which is without a doubt his most diverse and eclectic yet, shows a longing to be recognised as an artist who, despite his early acclaim, still has more unique material to deliver. Unfortunately, whilst The Less You Know, The Better does showcase Shadow’s versatile abilities, it is an album that consistently falls short of what we all know can be achieved by this man. That being said, it’s still mostly listenable and remains engaging most of the time, if only for its unpredictability.
It first needs to be said that there aren’t any stand-out bad tracks on this album. DJ Shadow walks a fine line between relevant experimentation and losing his musical identity completely on tracks like Warning Call (an all-out modern indie rock shuffler), however he never strays from hip-hop sensibilities for too long, following up this track with Tedium, a fairly interesting, moody, industrial-tinged interlude which serves to root the proceedings firmly in the beat-driven camp once again. However, these two tracks represent a recurring problem; The Less You Know, The Better presents good ideas but doesn’t get anywhere with them. Half the time we’re presented with something that sounds nothing like DJ Shadow, half the time it seems that he is attempting to solidify his signature trip-hop sound, however the two rarely overlap which is why we are left with an album that is inherently disjointed and lacking in direction. On most tracks Shadow only scratches the surface of a mood, riff or beat, barely stopping to explore it before the next wildly different track. The majority of tracks from the first half of the album are 3 to 3 and a half minutes long with little or no continuity between them, however if we look at some of DJ Shadow’s most impressive moments – Stem/Long Stem, Building Steam…, Midnight in a Perfect World, Blood on the Motorway – they are all in excess of five minutes and are carefully crafted with a sense of poise and purpose, with Shadow giving himself room to gradually conjure deep, progressing moods and transcendental soundscapes. The album sorely lacks the cohesiveness it needs to deliver the genre-defying epics Shadow is capable of.
That being said, there are a few moments on the album when you may stop thinking “Why Hip-hop sucks in 2011” and actually enjoy the album. ‘Redeemed’ stands as evidence that Shadow is still more than capable of producing ethereal landscapes adeptly fused with driving hip-hop beats, the vocal and guitar samples perfectly remedying the chaotic incongruity of the first half of the album with four and a half minutes of pure tranquillity, even if it does come across a little underdeveloped. Equally memorable but for completely different reasons, ‘Give Me Back The Nights’ provides an unsettling distraction in the form of a progressively insane monologue from a Tom Waits-ian character, backed by a lumbering bass line and occasional wandering synths. Whilst it is simple and sounds more like Swordfishtrombones than DJ Shadow, it is still undeniably effective.
Overall, there is some good content to be found on The Less You Know, The Better but much of it is not memorable past 2 or 3 listens. If you’re a Shadow fan this is worth a listen but don’t expect to be blown away. If your expectations were as low as mine after The Outsider then this can at least be described as a step in the right direction, with DJ Shadow making much better usage of guest artists this time around (I’d take Little Dragon over Keak Da Sneak any day). The album is somewhat summed up by the half-way point interlude; “Slowly, we are getting nowhere…and that is a pleasure”.
*This is my first review, comments and feedback extremely welcome.*