The Private Press
n 1996 Josh Davis released ...Endtroducing, an expansive, intricate and morose tapestry of samples that wove brass, pianos, filtersweeps and hip hop beats together, creating something new from many things old. Quick to garner critical acclaim, public acceptance slowly but surely followed, making ...Endtroducing one of those rare things; a cult record that found mainstream success, attracting serious hip hop chin-strokers and casual music fans alike. Predictably, DJ Shadow became a cool name to drop on the back of very little material.
It’s taken six years for The Private Press to arrive, but DJ Shadow hasn’t quite done a Stone Roses on us. In the meantime he’s worked on the ill-advised Unkle project with James Lavelle, the cool but forgettable Quannum album, and the fantastic but insanely hard to find Brainfreeze mix LP. None of these side projects have come anywhere near the majesty of ...Endtroducing though, largely because the nature of collaborative work means it requires compromise. Searching through musty old records for funky beats and interesting sounds is by its nature a very lonely and introspective pastime, making the way Davis makes music not conducive to partnership and teamwork. His records are by far his most beneficial collaborators.
While ...Endtroducing seemed to most people to arrive unannounced from the hip-hop ether, The Private Press bares a serious weight of expectation on its shoulders. Davis pieced portions of the album from one-off pressings of records that were never intended for commercial release, individual vinyl postcards and doodles from long ago (hence the title). His source material for the actual music, however, mines a wider array of music than ...Endtroducing, due to Shadow's increasingly varied listening in the time between records.
Criticisms of The Private Press have centred around the idea that DJ Shadow has done all of this before, that he’s retreading previously innovative ground that he himself first years ago. Maybe this is true to an extent, but to criticise DJ Shadow for sounding like DJ Shadow is churlish, especially when you consider that his cinematic found-sound collages are still a cut above those of his many imitators. No, the problem with The Private Press is simply that it’s not consistent enough. "Fixed Income", "Giving Up The Ghost", and "You Can’t Go Home Again" are all at least the equal of anything off ...Endtroducing, and readily show up the Unkle album as the hollow self-pastiche it really is. But then we have to deal with the awkwardly irritating "Six Days" and it’s pseudo-profound vocals, and the histrionic "Mashin’ On The Motorway", which is a weak attempt at the kind of psychotic street funk which David Holmes was producing back in 1997 on Let’s Get Killed. Even the much talked about "Monosylabik" is more tedious than terrific, the indulgent hip hop equivalent of a 6-minute Joe Satriani wank-wank guitar solo.
One of the joys of ...Endtroducing was that it wasn’t an album you could get to grips with immediately – it took many listens over a period of time to fully reveal its quality and depth, and because of this the listener’s relationship with it became more involved and fulfilling. After a few weeks I already feel like I’ve gone as far with The Private Press as I can. There are too many tracks I want to skip past in order to get to the next one I like, and bizarrely, for an instrumental hip hop artist, there’s too much singing as well. On at least two occasions ("Blood On The Motorway" and "Six Days") DJ Shadow lifts whole vocal tracks from records and simply gives them new arrangements. OK, so we’ve never heard these particular songs that he’s lifted from before, but that doesn’t make these tracks anything more than glorified remixes of other people’s work. DJ Shadow’s previous work shows that he is way above this kind of laziness. The two "Letter From Home" tracks which partially bookend the LP also add nothing to The Private Press except a vague sense of kitsch irritation. Thank heaven he tacked the original version of "Giving Up The Ghost" on the end so the LP could finish on a high note.
There’s no doubt that DJ Shadow had a massive impact not just on hip hop or dance but music in general six years ago, that he is technically way ahead of most of his contemporaries, and that he has a knack of digging up gold from boxes of dusty records. But The Private Press, sadly, is merely a good album, when we were all expecting another great one. I doubt that people will be eulogising this record as an earth-shattering masterpiece in half a decade’s time, and that’s a shame.