I first heard it almost twenty years ago. I’d finished up a summer working in a sausage factory (it is said that there are two things it is better not to see being made: sausages and laws. I’m part of a select group who have direct experience of both and there is more than a little truth in that adage) and headed up to my flat in Edinburgh to start my second year at university, a few days before my flatmates. I may only have had a tiny 6ft*8ft box-room with no windows (although £120pcm in central Edinburgh was cheap, even in 1997), but it was the first place that was mine, in a way that a hall of residence I had to move out of every ten weeks was not. And so I could play my music, or in this case, the CD that one of my flatmates had left in the kitchen, as loudly as I wanted. So I spent a couple of days doing nothing but blasting Endtroducing….. through my absent flatmate’s expensive hi-fi system and playing Sid Meier’s Civilisation.
It begins with a peculiar minute long sound collage, Best Foot Forward, which starts with a sample from what I can only guess must be a corporate promotional video “Bob Wood, national programme director of the Chum group, worked with us in producing…” before launching into the opening piano motif from the 7 minute long Building Steam with a Grain of Salt. I was hooked immediately. This was what reviews of the likes of Aphex Twin in the inkie press had made me think a really good electronica record should sound like, but which, on the one or two occasions I had actually gone out and bought something the NME had been getting excited about, turned out not to be at all.
It became the soundtrack to an imaginary movie that played only in my head. It is ambient music as imagined by someone who had grown up in the sampling beat-making culture of US hip-hop. But while ‘soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist’ feels like something of a music reviewing cliché, what makes this album different is that I can actually picture the film. It is set in what was the near future (but must now be the recent past), on the west coast of the US. There are hints of something sinister and dystopian lurking in the background, but it’s not central to the plot. Everything is in super-saturated primary colours. Except perhaps when it switches into washed out near-monochrome. The other week I was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and at a stretch, it is sort of, just about, the film I’m imagining.
Over at Mookbarks, Emily says that “I can vividly picture the countless afterparties that this would have accompanied. Between throwing out time and feeling able to stomach food again.” I’m afraid the reality, for me at least, was more mundane. This was the soundtrack to being sat in the computer labs in South Bridge, trying to write my dissertation in four days flat using only caffeine and blind panic. By then, it was familiar enough to me that I could play it as background; use it as a way to get into the zone. And it says something that it hasn’t ruined the record for me and in the sixteen years since, it’s remained one of those records I’ll put on to help me focus.
While it’s long been one of my favourite records, until I started writing this piece, I’d never really looked into what it was that Josh Davies was sampling to make it. It turned out to be quite the rabbit hole. Take, for example, Mutual Slump. A quick search on www.whosampled.com reveals that it is comprised largely of the drums from 1960s psychedelic musician Pugh Rogefeldt’s Love, Love, Love, a slowed down pitch-shifted keyboard part from Bjork’s Possibly Maybe (which had been released the year before was everywhere around the time this record was being made) some sonic experimentation from More than seven dwarves in penis land from one of Roger Waters’ less remembered side-projects. To that is added a sample of a spaced sounding woman, faintly reminiscent of the person speaking in the Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, talking about how “When I came to America, saw Xanadu, All I wanted to do was roller-skate”. I had long wondered what the sample had been lifted from, though the internet, destroyer of mysteries, reveals that it is a brief sample from a twenty minute recording his wife had made in the studio, talking about her life.
The Number Song makes use of Metallica’s Orion for what is perhaps the closest thing to be found on this record to a traditional hip-hop track. Elsewhere, there are an awful lot of obscure 60s and 70s soul and funk records being cut up in various different ways including David Axelrod, whose Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience I heard many years later and sound like they were a significant influence
The use of these small scraps of dialogue are one of the charms of the record. I’ve always wondered what was said immediately after the 30 second track in which someone tells us how “Maureen’s got five sisters…” And I had always assumed that the section of Stem/Long Stem in which a man gripped by paranoia worries about how the cops might lock him up and throw away the key for non-payment of parking tickets had come from some obscure film-noir: turns out it’s actually from a comic monologue by Murray Roman
The one track that has rather dated is the in-joke that was Why hip-hop sucks in 1996 (the answer Mr Davis provides is that “it’s the money” – but if you don’t remember inescapable the lazy g-funk that the song samples was at the time, you’re not going to get it.)
It is perhaps significant that DJ Shadow/Josh Davis never really came close to repeating the achievement that was this record. The follow up, The Private Press had its moments, but felt like it creator couldn’t quite decide whether he wanted to make something for the dance-floor or another piece of moody electronica. And his more recent work has been something of a return to his hip-hop roots. Alright, but to my ears, nothing that hundreds of others aren’t doing equally well. Although I did rather like this track from his last record
Incidentally, I had been idly toying with the idea of writing a few ‘bonus’ editions of this blog about my personal favourite records. Thus far at least, I’d not got around to it, but here’s one that I will not now have to write.
Highlights: You really have to listen to this in its entirety. But if you insist, Building Steam With A Grain of Salt, Mutual Slump and Stem/Long Stem.