Unless you are the kind of club kid who spends his or her Saturday nights working up a lather in an oversized hot box rubbing up against a motley throng of brightly-clad club kids gnashing their teeth ecstatically to a hypnotic wash beats, a live DJ record is a shaky prospect. Even for a DJ of the merits of DJ Shadow, who has managed to escape the genre boundaries that tend to keep the rest of the dance and DJ community fairly insulated, the fact is that this type of music is meant to be listened to up close with as few mediators as possible between the artist and the listeners. In the tradition of such bands as The Grateful Dead, KISS, and Ween, most DJ music is site-specific, needing a particular context and a communal audience in order to reap its full benefits. Consequently, a “live” record of a band or artist like this has quite a job to do. Like all records, it is responsible for reliably representing what the music should sound like. But it bears the additional burden of recreating a very specific experience as well, something that can only be done with an expert hand and very enthusiastic and imaginative listeners. Given the weight of this responsibility, DJ Shadow’s newest record, Live! in Tune and on Time , does as well as can be expected. While some of the live tracks are imbued with the energy of their original performance, others fail to make the grade, relying on cheap fills and crowd-pleasing antics that simply do not translate to a recorded medium.
The record opens with a short recording of DJ Shadow stoking an enthusiastic London crowd. Dropping references to a slew of past records, side projects, and little-known B-Sides, the curiously mild-mannered DJ preps the crowd for what is to come throughout the show and the crowd responds in kind with adoring anticipation. Its placement as the introduction to the album is meant to underscore the “live” aspect of the record, transporting listeners to a time and place more vivid and sensual than wherever they are actually hearing the album through their stereos or headphones. But it actually does more to destroy that illusion, as the canned sound of applause falls limply out of the speakers and ends up sounding more than a little superfluous and self-aggrandizing.
The second track, “Fixed Income”, begins in a similarly gratuitous way, opening with a number of spoken samples that play over some cheesy atmospherics. The theatrics increase the “had to be there” feeling as a square-sounding guy prepares the audience for “the highest happiest trip you’ve ever been on”. But the DJ can almost be forgiven for the length of what is essentially needless filler when the beats finally start in. For once it overcomes some false starts, the song is virtuosic mixing at its best. Unlike many of his contemporaries, DJ Shadow chooses sounds that are more organic than processed and this works to good effect in the song as raw drum-beats mingle with samples of chirpy piano, giving the track a unique fullness and breadth. Unfortunately, the song’s follow up stops short of this success with muddy beats and overly-soulful vocal samples. “In/Flux” fares much better, held together with a laid-back bass sample. “Walkie-Talkie” features some truly wonderful old-school beats, but unfortunately, the annoying vocal samples are more diverting than engaging, weighing down what would otherwise be a honey of a dance song.
The record finally hits its stride about a third of the way through, and the wave it picks up here carries the rest of the record with very few lapses in energy. The DJ scores with the hip-hop influenced “Lonely Soul”. This is easily one of the best racks on the record with an honest-to-goodness rap replacing the usual plaintive dance vocals. The momentum continues with “Lost and Found”. The stride continues with the flawlessly smooth “Stem/Long Stem.” This sets up five groove-heavy songs which seem to blend seamlessly together, united by a heavy reliance on funk and hip-hop hooks and beats, culminating with a well-earned breakdown in “The Number Song”. One of DJ Shadow’s most well-known songs, “Organ Donor”, appears towards the end of the album, the brilliant organ sample that opens the song teasingly playing hide and seek with an audience anxious for the song to get underway.
The record finishes with a flourish, with a trio of extended versions of popular tracks “Mashin’ on the Motorway”, “Blood on the Motorway”, and “Napalm Brain”. Weighing in at almost twenty minutes altogether, the three songs wrap up what was certainly a long and sweaty set for those who were fortunate enough to be there for the original performance. While not quite as exciting for those of us listening at home, the record’s finale is definitely satisfying — almost good enough to suspend belief for a moment and imagine that we are there too.