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DJ Shadow
The Private Press

In Camera Lucida, his classic work on photography, Roland Barthes discusses an element he calls the "punctum," the detail that pierces the frozen surface of the photograph to provoke an unexpected emotional response. The punctum, for Barthes, is a private experience, wholly subjective. There's no science to it, it simply happens. Something reaches out and grabs you by the collar — or it doesn't. The punctum depends upon processes of mechanical reproduction for its existence; it's the errant detail that subverts the document's dry facticity. The punctum itself can never be the subject of the photograph — by definition, it's superfluous, excessive, supplementary. The punctum sees Barthes at his most maddeningly abstruse; it's not a concept you can necessarily use as part of an efficient interpretive strategy. As an arrow for your theoretical quiver, it seems bound to go wide of the mark every time.

And yet. Something about the concept seems particularly apt when discussing music — especially sampled music, which is so rich with layers, connotations, and untimely debris. It's a testament to DJ Shadow's ear that he's pockmarked his latest album, The Private Press, with moment after moment that works in similar ways to Barthes' punctum.

Perhaps this is no surprise, given the album's title: "Private Press" refers to a long-lost attraction from penny arcades, whereby ordinary people could make a recording, usually a letter to a lover or family, and have it pressed onto vinyl in an edition of one. Photo booth meets the dubplate. Shadow, the consummate crate-digger, has stumbled across more than a few of these artifacts in his years of buying vinyl, and he opens and closes his album with samples from his collection.

On the opening track, "(Letter From Home)," a Billy Strayhorn tune simmers beneath a scratchy recording of a woman speaking. "451 Commercial Avenue, Apartment K, Richmond, California," she begins. "September 9, 1951. Dear Lester, I'm sorry I didn't write before, and because this record wasn't sent, which I intended on doing before this, everything went wrong. Tonight, we got together and kept the kids up, and decided to have a little fun making this record. Well, of course, coming up we didn't have any trouble, we had a lot of fun. Mama slept all the way, and I didn't get tired driving -- I was overanxious. We got in about 12:45, got to Richmond, woke the family up. There's so many things I could say, but I just can't get them together! I'll let you hear from somebody else."

And with that, Strayhorn fades out and Shadow's real work begins, with an hour of heavy lifting and soldering. The track is only a bookend, but it carries a surprising emotional weight; in leaving unsaid more than it makes clear, the woman's tale conveys a powerful suggestion of mystery. The sense of history is strong: the woman's voice identifies her as, most likely, African American, and her skeletal tale of family and migration speaks quietly to the history of African Americans in the Bay Area during the post-war years — a vital and under-explored pre-history to hip-hop. But the punctum that rends it all — and this is what I like to believe Shadow heard as well — is the weird twinge to the woman's voice, caught somewhere between joy and grief. When she says, "There's so many things I could say, but I just can't get them together," you can hear her voice breaking with an overwhelming love. I imagine her to be Lester's sister, and in this subtle modulation, you see the shy, idolizing girl of her youth reappear for the briefest of moments.

What does this all have to do with DJ Shadow? After all, isn't this a hip-hop record? Fat beats, deep bass lines? Well, yes, of course: The Private Press follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor, 1998's Endtroducing, building on a formula of merging complex breakbeats with long, sampled phrases from a variety of sources: rock, soul, even techno. Shadow, by designating his art as nothing more (or less) than a wildly imaginative reading of his record collection, is deeply invested in recorded history. But The Private Press breaks from the hip-hop tradition of sticking to public, cultural history by indulging in something more veiled, more personal, more private. By framing his album with the conceit of the private press record, he reclaims the aura for the recorded document; in Shadow's hands, the record morphs from commodity to sacred covenant

I realize I've said next to nothing about the album itself, but what's to be said that you won't have already read in any of a dozen publications? The Private Press is full of rollicking beats, spectral tone colors, and enough subtle textures and supple surfaces to fill a textile warehouse. It's part hip-hop, part turntablism, part rock music, part electronica; it's a party record and a wake-up-and-drink-your-coffee record. More than anything, however, it's a private record that leans close and divulges one secret at a time. Perhaps you'll find it in the cracking of an anonymous woman's voice; perhaps your punctum will pierce you elsewhere. But if it's true, as the last track proclaims, that "You Can't Go Home Again," Shadow's crafted a record full of unheimlich collisions that serve as temporary, sonic dwellings — the most personal form of shelter you can find.

by Philip Sherburne

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