I have heard the future ... and -- go figure -- it sounds like the past.
That's because DJ Shadow, six long years after his debut LP Endtroducing..., has returned with his second proper release, another brilliantly produced pastiche of past and present, the sample-heavy The Private Press. Again defying categorization, Shadow harmoniously fuses elements that naturally repel one another, delivering a record of pure scratch-and-mix fun and aural pleasure. It's an echoing yet wholly distinctive confirmation of the found-art aesthetic he espoused with Endtroducing.
On The Private Press, Shadow shows that he's still a crafty turntablist focused on traversing the spectrum of musical genres and creating his own kind of jazz -- to use the word's original connotation of free musical improvisation. A suburban white kid from California, he seems to be drawn to just about everything but hair metal (thank God). His projects up to now include playing DJ as a member of U.N.K.L.E. on the electronica-rock experiment Psyence Fiction and backing up old Solesides labelmates Blackalicious and Lyrics Born and other rappers on Quannum Spectrum.
Here, though, he's the star. On the 14 "tunes" making up this disc, Shadow continues to draw from the vast collection of lost albums no one ever even thought to go looking for. Sampling the combined esoterica of '60s/'70s one-shots Saint Steven (?) and Phluph (??), "Fixed Income" sounds the depths before breaking into patent hip-hop beats punctuated by tricked-out guitar flourishes, meandering, drawn-out jams, and some anachronistic harpsichord dredged up from the psychedelic past. The laughable boast of some unimaginative DJ on "Walkie Talkie" break-beats into inspired scratching backed up by obese, blown-speaker, beyond-fuzzy bass licks. Following that hyperactive display, "Giving Up the Ghost" pauses for some ethereal, Eastern-influenced trance. Strings lovingly present "Six Days," its beatnik bongos and effects-laden organ sampled from another 'delic relic, Colonel Bagshot (???), whose lament "Six Day War" is sampled pretty straight-up. "Right Thing/GDMFSOB" throws the now-famous Leonard Nimoy/Mr. Spock "pure energy" sample into what sounds like a virtual melee of house DJs, and "Monosylabik," in which you can actually hear the trip-hop mothership land, is one of the toughest, tightest tracks on the disc. It's like a dizzy, worshipful compilation from the Atari sound-effects lab circa 1983 -- which, of course, makes it almost supernaturally cool.
-- Jeremy Spencer
In writing about the Radar Brothers, the biggest challenge, one that I am about to muff splendidly in this very sentence, is to avoid comparing them to Pink Floyd. But to deny the inflatable pig that hovers in your consciousness as you listen to And the Surrounding Mountains would be knavish. Now I know that "progressive rock" has gained a little credibility in the last couple of years, but no one, not even the proggiest of proglodytes, lauds poor Floyd. In fact, it is hard to understate the achievement of the Radar Brothers: They are an extremely listenable, inspirational, and, most of all, guilt-free updating of Pink Floyd. Gone are the Orwellian harangues, the study-hall antiestablishmentarianism, and the bloated arrangements. And I'm not even going to mention the dismal dregs that were Floyd's releases in the late '80s and early '90s -- The Division Bell and The Delicate Sound of Phoning It In. The Radar Brothers' And the Surrounding Mountains retains the mournful majesty, the spacebound introspection, and those amazing songs that imperceptibly swell with grandeur.
It's been three years since the Radar Brothers' last album, The Singing Hatchet, and the most obvious improvement has been in the production, all of which was overseen by lead brother Jim Putnam in his renovated home studio. The amount of time put into this endeavor is easy to discern. And the Surrounding Mountains is an incredibly lush recording; its sonic strata recall the neutral-hued layers of the desertscapes that adorn the front cover. With song titles populated by so many family members -- "You and the Father," "Sisters," "Uncles," and "Mothers" -- the album has the mood of a trip home for the holidays -- only without the esophagus-clogging shame and self-loathing.
The Radar Brothers, due to their somnambulatory gait, also get lumped in with bands like Low and Codeine in the unfortunately titled "slowcore" genre. I prefer the term used by the Radar Brothers themselves -- "sophisticated minimalism." Imagine if Neil Young's Crazy Horse got all sophisticatedly minimal and sent all of their chunky riffs to a rich-kid fat camp to slim down. Well, for one thing, they'd have to change their name to Fancy White Pony or something, but they would also sound a little like the Radar Brothers. -- David L. Dunlap Jr.
Mark Olson and The Creekdippers
With his last major release, the excellent My Own Jo Ellen, Mark Olson and his band of merry men (plus wife Victoria Williams) seemed to have finally found a balance between spontaneity and the focused songwriting he had previously lacked. But with this disappointing new album, Olson flops right back into his old bad habits. The opening cut galumphs into the piano-thumping gospel style that's Olson's trademark sound. It's great stuff, but unfortunately it sounds almost exactly like songs he's done before. His songwriting is stale, and attempts to orchestrate some numbers just sound amateurish. Olson was obviously going for a Neil Young Harvest effect, but he couldn't pull it off. Despite all this, December's Child does contain a few very good songs, including the delicate title cut.
The best tune on the whole release is, ironically enough, his first collaboration with former Jayhawks songwriting partner Gary Louris since Olson left the group. "Say You'll Be Mine" is a sweet slice of alt-country that possesses all the magic and spark that made those first two Jayhawks albums so special. The chemistry between these two songwriters is stronger than ever.
And on the closing cut, "One-Eyed Black Dog Moses," a longtime live favorite, they pull out all the stops and do a funkified blues thing with some great psychedelic-metal touches. I love the way that Williams finds her inner bluesmama growl on this one. Of his recent material at least, I think Olson's heavier stuff is more multidimensional. Writing in this genre seems to make him stretch more, and he would do well to keep exploring this path. -- Lisa Lumb