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DJ Shadow - The Outsider

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Artist: DJ Shadow

Album: The Outsider

Label: Island

Review date: Sep. 25, 2006

Fingers squeaking across the lush reverb of melancholic acoustic guitars. Heavy metal double-pedal kick drum patterns. Bay Area rapper E-40. This sounds more like an i-Pod on shuffle play than tracks on a cohesive record – much less one from DJ Shadow. Nevertheless, The Outsider, Shadow’s third full-length solo record in a decade has arrived.

The soft-spoken beatsmith, who spent his formative digging years in the listening rooms at KDVS in Davis, California, is known for taking his time between each step in his recording career. But despite the pace, the path Shadow walks is seldom one that has already been trodden. The Outsider is certainly in keeping with that tradition – a step to the margin in the context of Shadow’s previous efforts. His production has always referenced hip hop, but he's always stopped short of diving in head first. And on first listen, this record sounds more like something Shadow would buy than produce.

After a closer listen, however, it becomes evident that The Outsider is an album in three movements, paralleling Shadow's already prolific library. The cadre of eclectic guest appearances from hyphy progenitor Keak da Sneak, Mississippi’s David Banner, members of Kasabian, and Q-Tip make it seem like this record would play more like a mix tape, but Shadow pulls it off, and for the most part, each of the guest artists deliver the goods.

The Outsider features electronic/rock inspired songs similar to Shadow’s work with UNKLE, like “The Tiger” with Christopher Karloff and Sergio Pizzorno of Kasabian, as well as vintage Shadow downtempo like “Triplicate/Something Happened That Day.” One of the album’s high points comes from the politically-stringent hip hop flow in “Seeing Thangs” with news reports featuring Hurricane Katrina victims spliced between David Banner’s raps: “In a Chevy I’m wondering if the feds broke the levy / Are they in with the devil to control the weather? / Hurricanes and typhoons every other week / While poor folks are drowning in the middle of the street.”

Immediately following is “Broken Levy Blues,” an instrumental guitar-driven tune that features a faint voice in the background muttering “nobody cares.” It’s clear that Shadow’s tradition of effusing political commentary through music has reached a new apex here. In fact, The Outsider's only low points occur when that message is hazily construed on tracks like “Erase You” (featuring Chris James).

Another notable and unexpected guest is Christina Carter on “What Have I Done?”, which appears appropriately near the album’s folk-infused ending. Anyone familiar with Carter’s previous work with the Texas band Charalambides won’t find much surprising here. But while there are nice harmonizing vocal and acoustic guitar arpeggios, they are drowned out by the melodramatic narrative and synthesized strings. The song crosses the line dividing psychedelia and kitsch.

Some fans of Shadow’s earlier work might struggle to find a contextual frame of reference at points, looking for a vestige of his much-imitated style of drum programming and sampling. Even though The Outsider has its flaws, as an overall project in the context of a prolific career, this album presents both a point of growth and a new production path that is so endemic to DJ Shadow that it is hard to imagine it being produced by anyone else.

By Chris Tabron

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