Like many, I can still remember the first time I listened to Endtroducing…, the classic 1996 DJ Shadow debut LP that catapulted Josh Davis into what in the ’90s equated to indie stardom. The opening introduction track, “Best Foot Forward” was an announcement with no small amount of earned bravado: “Guess who’s coming?/ DJ Shadow/ Back again/ Who is he?/ Just your favorite DJ savior” Davis spun from a collection of crate-dug records, and the rest of the record lived up to the billing. Even if you know all the drum breaks, Endtroducing… still sounds surprising. Then it took six years for a new record, The Private Press. Then four more for The Outsider. And now, after five more years, comes Davis’ fourth record, The Less You Know, the Better.
If we’ve learned anything from the interim between DJ Shadow records, it’s that Davis is a sonic perfectionist. On Endtroducing… and The Private Press that paid dividends, and say what you will about The Outsider– and it’s been said– but it couldn’t be mistaken for amateurish and lazy. So it’s no surprise how cleanly constructed the samples on The Less You Know, the Better are. “Enemy Lines” probably has more than a few sources, but it sounds like the work of a live band, which is kind of where Shadow shines. And, like Davis previous three LPs, there’s a predictability to his unpredictability. Shadow loves zigging where you expect him to zag, like “Border Crossing’s” attempts to beat early ’90s Metallica at their own game.
But I’m not sure if, for all the sonic detail and genre-hopping of The Less You Know, the Better does much of anything for the listener. Too often, it seems to be demanding your respect and attention rather than earning it. When guests show up, it seems as though Shadow moves out of their way, as if Talib Kweli himself proves the quality of “Stay the Course” even though it feels like a pale imitation of the free jazz it’s indebted to. And where Endtroducing…‘s “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” was heartbroken despite its punishing backbeat, a track like “Sad and Lonely” seems to be asking for its sentiments. And with those issues, its hard to justify the seventy-five minute runtime of The Less You Know.
Davis didn’t used to have to ask for our attention like this. It came naturally, with engaging melodies and an ear for blending dispate sources together without revealing a single stiching along the seam. But somewhere along the line, his eclecticism became aimlessness, his instrumental profundity turned from intentional to accidental, and his musicality became old-fashioned. The Less You Know, the Better isn’t a terrible record– if tracks like “Run For Your Life” and “Redeemed” prove anything it’s that Davis still knows his way around a drumbeat– but merely a middling disappointment. If you remember the first time you listen to it, it’s only because it might be the only time.