In some ways, artists whose debuts are lousy, or competent, or fairly strong but not fabulous, have an easier time of it than do performers who knock the cover off the ball during their first at-bat. After all, no one counts on acts that occupy the vast qualitative middle ground to change music as we know it with their sophomore outings, whereas groundbreakers are practically required to exceed their original efforts or else be tagged as disappointments. It ain't fair, but that's the way the game is played.
This difficult lesson awaits Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, who headlines Boulder's Fox Theatre on Sunday, July 21. Shadow's initial offering, 1996's Endtroducing..., was the Citizen Kane of the DJ genre, a groundbreaking turntablist manifesto marked by endless invention, cinematic sweep and epic ambition. While it never became a mega-seller, the disc proved extremely influential, with spinners who arose in Shadow's wake subsequently finding ways to make its knotty pleasures accessible to a mass audience.
Topping this achievement would have been damn near impossible under even the most favorable conditions, and Shadow made the challenge even greater by waiting six years to issue another platter under his nom de plume. "You Can't Go Home Again," the pointedly titled lead single from Press, is an apparent attempt to puncture super-sized expectations: The tune is launched by the phrase "And here's a story about being free," delivered by what sounds like a Mr. Rogers clone, and it sports a bouncy synth hook that recalls the electro branch of 1980s new wave, of all things. Faux strings add texture, but for the most part, the track remains a notably retro throwback that's entertaining in a fairly modest way.
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Elsewhere, Press doesn't skimp on cleverness, and even includes a dollop or two of self-referential humor: "(Letter From Home)," which kicks off the CD, finds a matronly voiced woman reading a missive that begins, "I'm sorry I didn't write before, and because this record wasn't sent, which I intended doing before this, everything went wrong." But his heart doesn't seem to be in the goofiest cuts, like "Un Autre Introduction," with its allegedly wacky use of English and French spoken-word samples, and "Right Thing/ GDMFSOB," which starts like an outtake from Trio. These tracks feel as if Shadow is trying too hard to show that he's got a fun side.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other soundscapes worth exploring. "Fixed Income" features a fresh-sounding arrangement that comes across as simultaneously schematic and organic; "Walkie Talkie" offers a burst of pure hip-hop joy; "Giving Up the Ghost" moves from spectral minimalism to backbeat-heavy grooviness with great skill; and the sprawling "Blood on the Motorway" contains a melodic passage that made me think of Simply Red (which I try not to do on a regular basis), but still manages to crank up more than its share of grandeur.
To say that Private Press is more scattershot than Endtroducing... is no insult, since variety seems to be part of the point. However, this lack of coherence limits the album's impact. Shadow shouldn't be knocked for producing a collection of occasionally brilliant moments rather than a sustained statement, but he probably will be anyhow. He might have been better off if his first record weren't quite so good.