Press On

The last time Josh Davis had lots of people he didn't know talking and writing about him, he had just fomented what many of those people had decided would become a fundamental change in the way musicians make records. His debut album as DJ Shadow, 1996's Endtroducing..., seemed to present to mainstream listeners a whole new set of ideas: trip-hop, instrumental hip-hop, electronic music with real emotion, the DJ as album-worthy artist. In its strangely beautiful tapestry of carefully scavenged and meticulously assembled found sounds, Endtroducing... offered the kind of pre-millennial tension rock and roll wasn't quite generating; people gravitated toward the record because it felt like Davis was really trying something, and making it work. That was more than half a decade ago.

"Hip-hop DJs coming out with an instrumental album nowadays is not unique," Davis says on the phone from his home outside San Francisco, his hushed, guarded tone proving a perfect reflection of his adopted name. "Since Endtroducing... came out, there's been hundreds and hundreds of DJ-based albums, whereas in '96, outside of maybe the rave and house scene, there wasn't really much. So I tried to basically do something that was gonna be unique; I had to just try to do something that was gonna be fresh for me."

Davis is talking about devising Endtroducing...'s long-awaited follow-up, The Private Press, and he's right. The new album, released by MCA in June, exists in a musical world that takes for granted much of what seemed groundbreaking last time around: Hip-hop is no longer the sole province of breakbeat fiends backing up loudmouthed MCs (think of the Roots and Cannibal Ox); electronic music is as emotionally viable as anything else (think of Björk and Herbert); rock bands employ textural fiddling to complicate their attack (think of avowed Shadow fans Radiohead); sampling has pervaded the culture at large (think of a million different car-company TV spots). Even the Shadow method itself has become a scheme, with the madcap Australian crew the Avalanches constructing pop-radio effervescence from forgotten instructional LPs and the exacting German sextet Jazzanova sanding down the edges of old jazz sides to yield sleek elevator music. To keep people talking, Davis had to keep moving.

The Private Press shows he's done that. Built from similar parts as Endtroducing..., the disc is an impressive elaboration on the debut's themes--the moody bits are moodier, the technical parts more technical, the sense of environment more finely nuanced. If you think The Private Press impacts with the same blunt force as Endtroducing..., you're kidding yourself--even the Beatles never equaled the primal charge of "I Saw Her Standing There." But this is rich work, an expansive world of sound that proves just how good at finding life in dusty records Davis has become, and how much that life can still tell us about our own.

"The only way that I can separate myself from all that's happening now is to try and make something that isn't disposable and has some emotion to it," Davis explains. "Most turntablism that I hear is still very much in the realm of 'who's the best?'; that's a part of what hip-hop is about, competition and everything. Then when I hear a lot of quote-unquote trip-hop, I hear atmosphere, but I don't hear a lot of soul. Any type of music that I listen to has to have that; it's just a requirement for me. That's what drew me to hip-hop. Hip-hop was just totally emotional, 'cause it's like the blues or soul music or funk--it's got aggression, it's got rage, it's got intelligence, it's got heart and soul. I can't really listen to, like, 12 minutes of just a cool beat. It's gotta go somewhere; it's gotta say something."

That's where Davis really goes on The Private Press. He's getting close to perfecting his trademark big-gesture melancholy. "Six Days" and the two-part "Mongrel Meets His Maker" are ethereal, mysterious pieces, made of scratchy guitar lines and bubbling percussion, "Six Days" even resurrecting a vocal from bygone Britrockers Colonel Bagshot that makes the tune sound like something Yes might've done if it hadn't veered into power-ballad tedium. The album's nine-minute centerpiece "Blood on the Motorway" takes that idea further: "You have not betrayed your ideals," some dude named Marc Z. moans over a steady piano pulse and a keyboard figure that sounds like a laser, "your ideals betrayed you." It's an astonishing moment, a meditation on art and loss that only really gets cooking when the deftly syncopated drums and the moaning string section make their entrance.

"Emotion doesn't have to be sadness," Davis points out when I tell him how moving these parts of the CD are, and the album bears that out, too. "Fixed Income" and "Monosylabik" are exhilarating, almost jubilant slices of cut-and-pasted funk, maybe the 2002 equivalent of the Meters or the J.B.'s just laying down a groove and reveling in the forward motion. "Walkie Talkie" is a classic show-off track, Davis slyly recapitulating the question: Who's the best? On "Mashin' on the Motorway," the DJ's pal Lateef raps about being "your friendly neighborhood speed demon" over a groove assembled in part from traffic sounds. After the rush of "Blood on the Motorway" evens out, what you realize is great about The Private Press is how competently it makes its case for music made the way Davis makes his--in terms of psychological or aesthetic vigor, this stuff doesn't want for anything records by the Strokes or Lucinda Williams or Jay-Z don't. What Davis has really done on his second proper DJ Shadow album is show how viable the shock of the new can become when the new rubs off. That's a feat Endtroducing... couldn't pull off.

"Any culture that's fascinated too much with its own past is dead already," Davis says of the creative inertia that often swallows achievements like the one he made in 1996. "Now you have these museum exhibits traveling around America where it's supposed to educate people about hip-hop, and you have, like, Kool Moe Dee's sunglasses behind a glass case, or KRS-One's rhyme book enshrined in gold. It's like, 'Come on.' It's not about all that. You have to know the roots of it, but it's about innovation and progression. It's about 'who's the baddest?'" For now, DJ Shadow might be.

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Mikael Wood