Shadows of the Past


Showbox, 628-3151, $20 adv. / $22 8 p.m. Sun., June 9 (all ages)

I am not a voyeur. When my next-door neighbors are in their kitchen, the windows of which face mine, I close the shades. If I want to watch other people cooking, I’ll turn on the Food Network. But there is one instance where the opportunity to peek into the lives of strangers drives me to behave oddly: I often purchase secondhand records solely because of handwritten notes on the jackets.

My favorite example is a copy of Black and Blue by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, featuring the 1973 No. 1 R&B hit “The Love I Lost, Pt. 1,” which I bought in the U District a few years ago. Scrawled across the inner gatefold in a crude script is the following message:

Dear D.J.

The second song on the 1st side reminded me of you. The love I lost. Happy Birthday, baby.

Love, Tony

P.S. I was stupid to let you go.

I have no idea who D.J. and Tony are, or why they broke up. But what makes Tony’s note and the cut it was written about so special is they illustrate the profound influence popular music can exert over people.

Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, shares my fascination with finding personal artifacts buried in used record bins. He’s also spent most of his life trying to figure out why some songs can prompt a listener to burst into tears or grin from ear to ear . . . or scribble a confession to an ex-lover across an album cover. And it was from these two points of interest that his new album, The Private Press (MCA Records), was born.

“From an early age, I wondered why I would instantly be transported into a different mood when I heard certain songs,” says the Bay Area turntable innovator. “Especially sad songs.” Then, as he grew older, Shadow puzzled at how a particular tune could trigger nearly identical reactions in certain friends, while others seemed oblivious or unmoved by it. “Later, you realize it’s not necessarily that music doesn’t affect those people, but certain things work for them and others don’t.”

So for The Private Press, Shadow’s goal was to craft an album that would offer folks as many opportunities as possible to make those kinds of emotional connections. On an immediate level, this is reflected in the diverse range of styles represented. “Six Days” offers up neo-soul psychedelia, “Fixed Income” anchors space rock guitars with a one-note bass riff, and “You Can’t Go Home Again” storms the dance floor like a giddy new-wave fave. “Mashin’ on the Motorway” guest stars rapper Lateef as every freeway commuter’s worst nightmare, while “Right Thing/GDMFSOB” started out as a hardcore punk cover, then morphed into a barrage of cheesy keyboards and drum machines guaranteed to trigger flashbacks among acid house vets.

But the most impressive quality of Shadow’s sophomore full-length is that, while many sample-based records blatantly rip off bits of classics in lieu of original ideas, the bulk of these tracks were fashioned from thousands of tiny snippets lifted off of sources never intended for mass consumption.

Constantly digging in dusty thrift shops, Shadow found himself increasingly fascinated with recordings aimed at a very small audience—from homemade rap demos to souvenir LPs cut by high-school marching bands. And he took inspiration not just from the dedication these unknowns poured into their creations but from their emotional and musical states of mind as well.

“More than ever, I was trying to get into the mind-set of the people I was sampling, whether it was a garage-rock band or a psychedelic artist,” Shadow admits. Consequently, he adds, “I feel like I understand certain genres more than I used to.”

Several of the items sampled on The Private Press are one of a kind. The scratchy opening and closing bits, both titled “(Letter From Home),” are built from Recordio Disks, disposable 78 rpm records from the 1940s that folks used to cut in coin-operated booths. “It’s like listening to someone’s letter. I wish somebody could have placed a little camera on one of these records in 1941 and I could see the entire history of how it ended up in a thrift store,” he admits.

Sorry Shadow, but I’m glad nobody did. The fun in finding evidence of a record’s previous owner is trying to guess what was going on in their life when they listened to it. And striving to get inside the heads and hearts of both anonymous artists and imaginary listeners is what makes The Private Press so remarkable.

Take it from one who knows: This is one time when buying a record just because you’re fascinated by the details of other people’s lives doesn’t constitute strange behavior.