You could, and probably should, consider this album to be the high-water mark for techno in the 1990s. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Endtroducing… is the world’s “first album to be recorded using only sampled sounds.” That being the case, I’d love to get a look at the man’s record collection. I mean, seriously: the album’s first track, “Best Foot Forward,” is 48 seconds long and uses samples from at least 10 sources. It’s hard for a borderline-poor radio DJ in college like myself to even comprehend how he mixed all of those tracks in the studio, much less how he must do it when he performs in front of a live audience. He makes it sound easy, never letting you know that there’s been a transistion unless he wants you to know that there’s been a transition.
Finding and mixing all those samples together is one thing; making a track out of them is another, and making an album with those tracks is still another. I would expect an album built from tracks that are themselves built from hundreds of samples culled from stand-alone songs and sounds to be jarringly eclectic and almost unlistenable. (See: Negativland.) Not only is Endtroducing… very listenable, you can also make a case that there’s a consistent theme through out. For my part, I found the album dark and “crunchy,” even the slightly whimsical interludes that are the untitled track six and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ’96.” The deceptively simple-sounding “Organ Donor,” with its heavy use of a track featuring an organ, evoked a tripped out vampire in my mind (which might say more about me than it does about the track itself.) “Midnight in a Perfect World” contrasts its bottom heavy bass and drums with an almost ethereal vocal track, which floats over a contrasting and poignant keyboard line. You can hear the fun in the count-off and countdown samples for “The Number Song,” but the underlining sound bed of drums and (can you believe it?) the introduction to Metallica’s “Orion” add something a little more sinister. For my money, though, the track that best typifies Endtroducing… is “Building Steam with a Grain of Sand”:
The Less You Know, The Better
Fifteen years later, we come to The Less You Know, The Better. While it’s a solid album that continues to showcase DJ Shadow’s considerable skill in mixing and creating songs from samples, I can’t find too much about it that stands out. He has invited more guest artists to perform on tracks: Talib Kweli and Pos rap on “Stay the Course” and “Warning Call” features Tom Vek.
“Border Crossing” and the single “I Gotta Rokk” use more obvious metal influences, but I find the songs themselves to be a little forgettable. One obvious misfire, to me, is “Give Me Back the Nights,” a track that starts with a four note bass line and leads into a three-and-a-half minute rant about… I really don’t know what:
Give me back the nights.
Give me back the agony of my solitude.
The nights I’ve spent alone.
The million endless solitary nights of my life.
Give me back all the people I desired but never came…
It goes on, but I’ll stop there. (To be honest, I want to think that it’s a joke. Please, let it be a joke.)
Verdict: Despite the one major miscue and the other solid but mostly forgettable songs, The Less You Know, The Better is a well-crafted album that is worth your time. People will say that it doesn’t measure up to Endtroducing… and I would tend to agree with them. However, I doubt very much that DJ Shadow is trying to reproduce his debut album. Still, Shadow has built his career and considerable following on his debut album, and I consider that first album to be superior to this latest one.