To the Batcave


Out-of-Body Experience, heaven version: “I saw my life before my eyes, and that is no shit. . . . I saw myself walking in and out of countless record stores, forking over vast fortunes in an endless chain of cash-register clicks and dings. . . . I saw litter bins piled high with bags that stores all seal records in so you won’t get nabbed for lifting as you trot out the door. I saw myself on a thousand occasions walking toward my car with a brisk and purposeful step, turning the key in the ignition and varooming off high as a hotrodder in anticipation of the revelations waiting in thirty-five or forty minutes of blasting sound soon as I got home, the eternal promise that this time the guitars will jell like TNT and set off galvanic sizzles in our brain “KABLOOIE!!!” —Lester Bangs, 1971

Out-of-Body Experience, Satan’s remix: DJ Shadow, digging in the basement stacks at a Northern California record store, as seen in the DJ documentary Scratch. Everywhere boxes and piles and bags and stalagmites of records. He’s rooting around in a subterranean catacomb, crawling in the dust of time. Then he remembers the moment he hit pay dirt—not the Kablooie moment, but the time he found a mummified bat among all that lost vinyl. He seems shocked, and oddly validated.

Six years since Endtroducing . . . pushed turntablism onto college radio playlists and announced Shadow as the herald of a brand-new thang, the guy has found his way out of the tombs. It’s not like he wasn’t busy with sidesteps like Quannum, UNKLE, Brainfreeze, but this is the one he’s been sitting on. Shadow has said making his new The Private Press felt like a chance to press reset on his entire career, yet actually the record sounds like it came a year or so after Endtroducing . . . —which is to say, it goes a little deeper in summoning Gothic textures and awesome drum samples, and arrives as a delayed, well-fitting follow-up to a landmark.

What he savors about old vinyl isn’t discovering the transcendental breakbeat or jaw-dropping sitar solo; these are the kinds of pleasures that get you through the dawn, but Shadow’s goals are bigger. He’s in love with the ghostly buzz old records give off and rabbit-in-the-headlights struck by the mystery of how old sounds, grooves that were supposed to sum up everything—the now moments—all sound so, well, old. Not to mention, at their best, inexplicable. He savors the anachronism of sound trapped in plastic. And he combs it for a mordant sense of his own humanity. In life and trapped on plastic himself he’s a spelunker in the recorded archives, stumbling out to bring forth a message—all that lasts is a spiral scratch, a Thai Elephant Orchestra promo, and a dead bat.

The name of The Private Press delineates something even rarer than the usual commercial vinyl that he draws upon; he’s referencing self-made records, sonic letters that were a small craze from the ’40s into the ’60s. People stepped into booths, dropped a few coins in, and let loose. It wasn’t for the market, but rather unprocessed communication targeted at a single party. Stuff that might have meant everything to the person who made it at the time. Shadow uses snippets—postcards to far-off relatives, old jazz playing in the background—and titles them “Letters From Home.” Everywhere else, though, the vibe is that home is a long way off.

You can hear this gorgeous and occasionally funny CD as simply disturbing music. But on a record on which virtually everything—except rapper Latyrx’s vocal on “Mashin’ on the Motorway”—is sampled (old vinyl and new studio jams), I hear a guy communing with disembodied sound. It’s interesting how uninterested in technology Shadow is: Turnta-blists usually sound smitten with futurism, but he isn’t composing science fiction soundtrack music, nor is he dazzling us with his mastery. His skills are just fine, but he sounds vaguely anachronistic himself, given the current state of the DJ-producer art. Shadow wants to wrench fragments of the past and hurl them into the present, like Walker Evans coldcocking you with a photographic detail of posters tacked to an urban wall. He finds the supernatural in the obsolete. Nowhere more, perhaps, than the disturbingly tweaked vocal on “The 6 Day War.” It sounds like something from a forgotten hippie album, but Shadow (along with unwitting help of George Bush Jr.) gives the singer’s lyrics, about the ground trembling and the war dead ahead, a creepy significance. The voice grabs you at first, a hermaphroditic oracle from acid dreams past, but what I remember several dozen listens in is the tambourine that rattles over the song, chattering like a handful of teeth flung into a Salvation Army pot.

The single radical shift on the record is “Monosylabik,” six-plus minutes constructed out of a single two-bar sample that splinters and steps into gopher holes like your typical Warp artist. Here Shadow’s showing some new shit, which is totally unnecessary and totally cool. It starts out narrow and grows incrementally into a dodgy, mathematical, and beautiful parallel universe.

There was a great correction in a number of news sources a few months back. First it was reported on CNN and in the Times that astronomers had sampled the entire spectrum of color given off by the universe, and deduced that the color of the universe was turquoise. A few days later, it turned out the report was in error and the true color of the sum of everything is beige. Fuck that! “Monosylabik” never got the correction; DJ Shadow builds a blue-green model of the universe out of the smallest of parts. He makes you hear turquoise.