DJ Shadow Inconsistent on ‘The Outsider’

CHRIS BARTH
The Dartmouth
Dartmouth University

(U-WIRE) HANOVER, N.H. — “There’s songs on this album that I think blow away almost anything else I’ve ever done. I think song for song it’s the best album I’ve ever made. One thing’s for sure — it’s going to make it very difficult for people to imitate my sound!”

A quote like this from the grandfather of sampling, and perhaps the most stylistically imitated artist in DJing and trip-hop, is enough to excite even the most casual DJ Shadow fan. Seriously, the man is in the Guinness Book of World Records for producing the “First Completely Sampled Album,” the 1996 masterpiece “Endtroducing…”

He’s already started multiple movements in the turntable world, and is an inspiration to both established disc-spinners and college kids with Garageband who think they and their laptop are going to make it big. As an ill-advised encore, however, he completely changes everything on “The Outsider.”

On “The Outsider,” DJ Shadow (the hard-sounding nom-de-album of Josh Davis) strays from the more obscure samples and abrasive styles found on “Endtroducing…” and its follow-up, “Private Press.” Instead, Davis enlists the help of real live rappers and singers, rather than just vinyl records from the $1 bin, creating a much more hip-hop and song-based album that will no doubt alienate many turntablists and longtime fans.

At least the differences aren’t evident from the start. The first track, creatively titled “Outsider Intro,” layers a stuttering, effected guitar riff under a melodramatic voice over that sounds like it’s done by the guy who does movie previews. You know the guy I’m talking about. The music evolves to a pinnacle of swirling guitars before leaving only the voice and the ominous words “The stories of the outsider endure … messages, dictations, warnings, stories such as these…” Creepy.

As if making fun of his own flair for the dramatic, Shadow follows this introduction with “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way),” a jazzy, funky, bluesy track that is anything but dark or tense. One part 1970s ballad, two parts “Shaft” theme, “This Time” shows that Shadow is ready to embrace typical single structure, complete with verses, a chorus, and a twangy guitar solo. But wait, because the madness doesn’t stop there.

Indeed, keeping the listener guessing, Shadow quickly moves from the happy-go-lucky “This Time” to “3 Freaks,” a heavily distorted rap featuring Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk. The beat here presents yet another side of DJ Shadow, formed less by spun-together samples and sounding more like something Pharrell and the Neptunes left on the studio cutting floor.

Although the breakbeat, which consists of Turf Talk growling “Turf Talk and Keak Da Sneak,” hits well and gives shape to the beat’s free-form blips, it also foreshadows the continuation of the most annoying habit in hip-hop in which rappers/producers shout their names on their own tracks. The artists are listed on the cover, no need to remind me, thanks. Unfortunately this trend continues, and DJ Shadow gets call-outs on tracks four, five, six, seven and 16. Ouch.

Still, the album isn’t all self-calls and hip-hop tracks. Indeed “The Outsider” seems like DJ Shadow’s schizophrenic experimentation put to record with few overarching themes. The heart of the order on the album, “3 Freaks,” “Turf Dancing,” “Keep ‘Em Close” and “Seein’ Thangs,” revolve around raps by outsiders including Nump and David Banner, but on later tracks Shadow changes his tune, reverting to his sampling-self for tracks like “Triplicate/Something Happened That Day” and “The Tiger.” Like “Mutual Slump” on “Endtroducing…” Shadow also includes the song “Artifact” on this release, a dense wall of noise placed in the middle of the album as if to test the listener’s dedication. Although it has its high spots, the album is inconsistent at best and shows little of the creative originality that characterize both “Endtroducing…” and to a lesser extent “Private Press.”

Without a doubt, “The Outsider” does not live up to Shadow’s previous works. But it is so different and diverse that it appears as if it isn’t meant to. Just as he pushed the edge of the envelope in 1996, Shadow tries new things on the album, meeting both with great success and utter failure. Tracks like the emotional “Broken Levee Blues” and the cheery “Enuff” present very different but enjoyable snapshots of the record, while “Turf Dancing” beats dead horses and “You Made It” sounds like Coldplay meets John Mayer (not in a good way). “Backstage Girl,” the most impressive song of the album, combines the main themes of the disc, meshing bluesy rock with the Southern rap of Phonte Coleman without missing a beat. More of this would be a welcome addition to the album.

Josh Davis has been described as hanging out in the dark basement of KDVS radio station in California, listening to records doomed to catch cobwebs in storage vaults while searching for samples.

Says Davis, “it’s a cultural part of being a DJ. … It’s ingrained in me.” From these vaults came “Endtroducing…” a disjointed but brilliant jaunt through the corners of DJ Shadow’s mind. Eight years later, when asked about his main goals for the future, he replied “to streamline the avenue between what I hear in my mind and what I’m able to actually release to the public.” Less jumpy and more single-oriented, “The Outsider” may very well be that streamlined boulevard. But to be honest, I prefer the scenic route.