The concept of the artefact is key to the music DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, manipulates, reissues and produces. Be it long-forgotten funk cuts, radio spots, school band LPs, proto-hip-hop cassettes or LPs manufactured (then destroyed) by the Mafia, having a rare recording in one’s hands – and Davis’ ability to source such things – has always been intrinsic to his appeal. He’s sent collectors worldwide into states of apoplexy and caused eBay prices to soar. More importantly, the sum total of newly-exposed music in the world has blossomed in the 25-plus years the Californian has been making sounds.
So, the music inside this box set is vital. Debut LP Endtroducing… remains a must-have, and most honest fans’ highpoint. Blending jazz, beats and atmospherics, it’s claimed to be the first record constructed entirely from samples (though Davis’ girlfriend can be heard speaking about rollerskating). In line with his three other studio albums it sticks out, perhaps as only a debut album can; keen to leapfrog the trip-hop subgenre, Davis subsequently moved into poppier territories. When it worked it was thrilling. As RC’s Editor pointed out in his review of 2011’s The Less You Know The Better, the latest album was a “grower” (with Scale It Back being particularly worthy of comparison to anything on Endtroducing…), benefiting from having fresher raw materials that pushed the envelope further (the vocals from Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano are sublime).
So what’s missing? Well, unless they’re exhaustive, box sets can only ever really encourage further investigation. But the Brainfreeze and Product Placement DJ sets (the latter constructed solely with 7”s) with Cut Chemist were peaks in the trajectory of vinyl archaeology and turntablism, and Davis’ work remixing or producing others is also omitted, possibly for licensing reasons. Not a great deal here pre-dates his signing to Mo’ Wax in 1995, his work with Solesides or the embryonics of his early cut-and-paste days as documented on the recent Total Breakdown compilation.
A live show from Glasgow in 2011 finds Shadow pre-empting the current upswing in American EDM by about six months. Even if it sounds like Pendulum at points, there are plenty of breathtaking moments where he sweeps a noise around a room, spins a 12” back to gasps from the audience, or drops an a cappella over a distorted beat from a non-album single or remix.
Reconstructed should rightfully be cherishable. Pressed in a run of just 500 and signed by the man himself, it houses all his albums, a DVD, a 12” of remixes and an informed – if minutely printed – essay from Dave Tompkins. The thing even glows in the dark and includes a cloth for removing your fingerprints. Trouble is, this hunk feels like a slight let down. It’s a flawed artefact. The plastic materials are rough and the glue has already come unstuck on our copy. The CDs don’t sit properly in their sleeves, and the booklet, which was once speculated to include photography from Shadow’s visual cohort B+, delivers only the scantest imagery and discographical detail. You may think this is nit-picking, but consider that it’s a box set aimed at vinyl fetishists who’ll expect absolute perfection for the £170 asking price – especially since Island have marketed it as the most expensive box set they’ve ever produced.
Still, as far as the music’s concerned it’s a thrilling journey sizeable enough to make an impression on your shelf. Its success lies in the exploratory recordings within. Perhaps that means Reconstructed has done its job.