Few electronic artists over the years have been burdened with the same level of colossal expectations from release to release as Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, has. After debuting in 1996 with Endtroducing…, a bona fide classic full of dusty samples and atmospheric instrumental hip-hop, the question quickly seemed to become: “Where does he go from here?” Davis’ answer thus far has been largely disjointed, punctuated with side projects, film scores and odd genre experiments, leading to a consensus of relative disappointment amongst his early fans. The long waits between proper releases and Davis’ enigmatic relationship with the press, however, have fueled hope that he’s got another undisputed great album left somewhere up his sleeve. But if there was anything to be learned from the scattered, mix-tape-like feel of his last release, 2006’s The Outsider, it’s that Davis has moved on from the prospect of him ever topping Endtroducing…, and that we probably should too.
Over five years in the making, Davis’ newest album, The Less You Know, The Better, sounds something like a mishmash of all the stops throughout the DJ Shadow catalog, full of some of the good moments–and plenty of the frustrating ones as well.
Kicking off with a track that sounds like a lost cut from 2002’s The Private Press, “Back to Front (Circular Logic)” is two minutes of a straight-forward hip-hop beat sprinkled with quirky vocal samples and old-school scratches. The track works well enough as an opener, but it is ultimately pretty forgettable. Luckily, “Border Crossing” and its distorted guitar samples quickly take over, offering up a nice homage to chuggy 1980s metal. Davis has always had his fair share of rock influences, and it’s nice to see he can still build a solid track by utilizing them. Elsewhere, songs like “Enemy Lines” and “Redeemed” recapture a bit of the chilly and ominous mood of Endtroducing…, while “Run For Your Life” is a nice blast of choppy funk guitars and frenetic jazz drumming in the vein of some early singles, such as “The Number Song.”
Over the years, Davis has begun to incorporate guest vocals (of both the rapping and singing variety) more frequently. And while it’s a far cry from the guest-riddled excursions into hyphy and R&B found on the last album, The Less You Know, The Better is no exception in this department. On “Stay the Course,” Talib Kweli and Posdnuos rhyme over a relatively sparse beat carried by a slinky funk bass line, channeling the spirit of old-school A Tribe Called Quest-style hip-hop. The album also includes British rocker Tom Vek and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, with the latter offering up some melancholic vocals on the piano-driven “Scale It Back,” one of the record’s highlights.
Ultimately though, there’s just not really enough memorable material in the album’s nearly hour-long running time to endorse it as the return to form that many will prematurely want to stamp it with. All of Davis’ signature cut-and-paste tricks are here, sometimes in satisfying enough form. But the songs almost seem to drift by on autopilot, rarely revealing anything special or new, and too often sounding dated—right down to the kitschy use of the record skipping trick used to end several of the tracks. When a memorable moment pops up, such as the creepy dirge of “Give Me Back the Nights,” it’s marred by its awkward placement on an album that’s track-list sequence seems like it was decided by blindly throwing darts at a wall.
In the end, we’re left with something that likely won’t do much to win back fans that have long ago jumped ship, and probably won’t overly impress new listeners either. And that isn’t to say that The Less You Know, The Better is a particularly bad album, as it all comes across sounding pleasant enough. It unfortunately just isn’t very interesting.
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