90s music

#18: DJ Shadow - "Endtroducing....." (1996)

Sometimes you really can judge an album by its cover. At least, with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... anyway. The cover is an entirely accurate synaesthetic translation of sonic to visual. Two men on either side of a record store aisle in grainy neutrals. The left-hand man cuts a solid figure with his sensible mac and stack of vinyl sleeves under one arm whilst the right-hand man's face is caught in a blur, as if he can barely comprehend the choice on the racks in front of him. A still image that suggests a glut of movement without capturing the action itself, a frenzy condensed into a single frame. 

Listening to DJ Shadow's debut album is the sensation of being wired-but-tired. Though I was only six when it was released - yeah that's right, I'm the millennial she told you not to worry about - I can vividly picture the countless afterparties that this would have accompanied. Between throwing out time and feeling able to stomach food again, Endtroducing..... is pitch perfect. From its title - five periods to an ellipsis and yes, we all see what you did there - to the smoky, jerky rhythms, it's the sound of every good night finishing up and every too-bright dawn descending on your head.

Renowned for being stitched together entirely of samples from the considerable record collection of DJ Shadow (real name Joshua Davis), rumoured to be 60,000 and counting, Endtroducing..... is an unsurprisingly mixed bag but has its own distinctive wah-wah tone that feathers the landing of each track. This isn't to say that everything sounds the same, quite the opposite. Hooks that make you want to wave your arms like a motorway garage inflatable mascot come courtesy of Organ Donor, whilst haunting female vocals and a stuttering bass line that's reminiscent of Portishead are provided by Midnight In a Perfect World and Transmission 3 rounds off itself and the album with the obligatory Twin Peaks sample.

Going back to the title, there is a dash of showing off - "It's like, the end is in the beginning, yeah?" - that is present in the track titles and content. For example, Why Hip-Hop Is Shit In '96 is an instrumental that ends simply with, "the money" whilst What Does Your Soul Look Like (Pt. 4) comes before What Does Your Soul Look Like (Pt. 1) though the three "Transmissions" are in numerical order. These are cheeky enough to just about be endearing but, overall, Endtroducing..... lacks the deeper insight and political statement that the best hip-hop can demonstrate. This doesn't make it any less of an interesting journey through a technical marvel of a soundscape but I couldn't help but be left feeling a little hollow. DJ Shadow combines voices to create a staggering choir. There's so much noise - but I still have no idea what he's saying.

 

#14: Beth Orton - "Central Reservation" (1999)

There was a time, not that long ago, when the response from my friends as I would be on the cusp of enthusing about an album I had just discovered was to cut me off mid-flow. "Ethereal female vocals with a modern twist on the folk singer-songwriter with chanteuse and / or electronic elements?" they would say, accompanied with the most endearing eye-roll possible. I would agree, shaken, like the tablecloth had been whisked away without disturbing a single piece of cutlery. But I got the picture, eventually. Mournful-sounding ladies are very much my 'hing. Yet, somehow, I have let Beth Orton completely pass me by. Until now.

Central Reservation gained Orton her second Mercury Music Prize nomination and it's easy to see why. That sensation of having heard an album before though you can't consciously think when that would be possible, then you realise how impactful it must have been on release, how much effect it still has, that that's kind of the point. Orton has a distinct voice and register, less on the Kate Bush and PJ Harvey end of the spectrum and more towards Feist and Laura Marling. Trying to describe her sound gets me running into paradoxes. She's husky but clear, deep but soaring, tender but bold. An utterly remarkable voice that isn't clipped to be more conventionally appealing, that is magnetic nonetheless. There's nothing wan about the musical arrangements. They are robust, bursting forth with jazz, folk and rock touches that feel anything but derivative. 

And yet... You can have too much of a good thing. There's not much variation between songs and each track feels like it's made its point then goes on for another minute. Maybe something meditative is the aim, which is definitely achieved, but there's a sense of stretch and repetition that held this back from being really spectacular for me. When an album speaks to you, or rather, gives you the language for certain experiences you had difficulty finding yourself, it's best when it doesn't drone or blur. But then I'm someone who doesn't think our attention spans are shortening and that brevity is an underrated virtue. Perhaps this is the anathema of art but I'd happily have Orton as a guest at any dinner party, with this playing on a low volume in the background. Soft, welcoming, setting a certain energetic tone but not engaging for full focus.

Altogether, quite polite - and I can't help but feel Orton deserves to make her demands known.