Sweet whats? Sweet spots, those moments, those glorious moments in records that only you love for (Minnie Ripperton) reasons specific to you. Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D., The Neptunes and his own fame spoke of such moments on Gilles Peterson’s BBC Radio 1 show, Worldwide, back in July of 2006. For him, it was the matching of Andy Bey’s voice to Gary Bartz’s sax on Celestial Blues that provoked… joy? With that conversation, and its sentiments, in mind comes this column. Please feel free to share your own. There’s always a danger when sharing that that which is shared is diminished. Hopefully not here.
Sweet spots should elicit great emotion; they should prompt private, knowing smiles; they should cause movement, be it in your hips or in your heart. At their best they should improve your moment, your day, your life and endure. Sweet spots are the lovers kissing and parting in the rain on those sonic bridges built by engineers. Thus, they pose the question, hardly worth answering: are they, like beauty, inherent, essential and existing on their own or are they determined by the whims of the listeners’ ear canals? Can one person keep their locks bolted shut to the same sounds that prompt transcendence in another?
I don’t recall the first time I heard DJ Shadow’s debut album, Entroducing. I have no doubt I can thank one, or both, of two people responsible for much of my musical education for introducing it to me: my older brother (their primary function, it seems), and the most important, Donal Dineen, a late night DJ on, first Radio Ireland, and then Today FM. But I remember when I listened to it last, and the day before that, and the day before that, and tomorrow. It is one of very few records I can listen to every day for months on end without getting bored, the others being the works of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It sits in that company.
Entroducing is an extended sweet spot in and of itself, one of which Sting and Trudy would be proud. Listening to that record on a recent late night meander along the banks of the canal where Patrick Kavanagh sat to compose and now sits in repose, I counted a score of sweet spots and had yet to reach the half way mark. But I choose one, or one chose me.
It is a testament to the endurance of this album, over its sixty-five-odd minutes and the last eleven years, that the highest note (to my mind) comes close to the end, the penultimate track in fact, the wondrous What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1 – Blue Sky Revisit’. For this writer, the consistent high note running through the record is the drums, who Shadow samples with the sticks and how he uses those samples to add coherence and some semblance of continuity (if any is needed!).
On this particular tune, it’s the sampled drums of one Idris Muhammad which provide that moment of ecstasy, soloing on a track called Joe Splivingates from David Young’s self-titled 1971 album. He opens, does Idris, after some static courtesy of the Alan Parson’s Project, with the most delicate of touches, tickling the hi-hats, beneath (above? alongside?) Jimmy Heath’s tenor sax, and a minute in, after some quietly imploring vocals from Shawn Philips, pauses ponderously, so languid a pause, before pounding the skins, insistently, setting the tempo that will carry for the rest of the tune.
Blue Sky Revisit is a most exquisite example of layers in music, the ethereal, choral like voices that colour the background a mere snippet of a folk tune from The Growing Concern’s Edge of Time. Four minutes in and Shadow encloses the circle, returning to where he began (perhaps in deference to his source material), though not quite. A chink of light spews forth a chewed up piece of cassette tape, which in turn precedes the renewed drum roll and some deft turntablism.
But the magic is to follow, the build up worth the weight. Never much of a fan of turntablism myself, DJ Shadow enlivens it with some soul, scratching in what sounds eerily like a voice, constricted and restrained but almost escaping, and a heart beat, when he magically matches the beat of Idris Muhammad’s drums with that of the scratching. It lasts no more than a few seconds but that takes nothing away from its lasting effects. All of a sudden, the build up, the samples layered atop one another in the preceding five minutes make sense. The clarity of vision and execution is astonishing. It encapsulates, as does the whole album, the life (fantastical) that the mere mention of the word ‘California’ suggests.
For all its acclaim, for all the praise it has received since its release in 1996 up to the latest Amazon reviews, there remains the lingering suspicion that Entroducing is not quite considered as it should be. Perhaps that’s down to Josh Davis’ chosen moniker containing the culturally connotative (negative) ‘DJ’; no doubt being tagged as hip-hop (as Shadow did himself) didn’t help either. Be it hip-hop, be it jazz, be it whatever, it is (for me) a sympathique progression, or accompaniment, or joining of the dots to Coltrane, Miles and the like. A continuation.