It will only take me ten words to mention Deadringer in this review, which is nine more than the majority of reviews allow for. RJD2’s now-classic 2002 debut record (although anyone who likes good deejay music should get a hold of his 2001 Your Face or Your Kneecaps mix on Bustown Pride) is all things to all people: soulful, moody, rocking, bouncing. It’s hip-hop at its most broadly appealing (which explains the comparisons to Moby’s Play, however unintentionally derogatory). Any follow-up to such a record is never going to live up to the expectations; it’s nice to know that Since We Last Spoke is no exception.
RJ puts his most Deadringer-esque work in front in a failed attempt to ease listeners into a new direction. The title track opens the album, and with its starts and stops, staccato piano beat and smashing drums, it’s arguably the song that’s most similar to his previous work. But this is heavy on guitars instead of horns; it has radio heft instead of the cinematic atmosphere that permeated Deadringer; and, what will be most telling of all, it has synth breaks and swooping effects coming in and out of the mix. The echoing and muffled vocals of "Exotic Talk" confirm what was previously hinted at: we are being subjected to a ’70s psychedelic guitar-rock album.
That suspicion is calmed a bit by "1976," with its funked-out horns and vocals. But I still can’t help but think of ’70s cop shows with a split screen/freeze frame in the credits and bad mustaches. It almost sounds like an outtake from Arling and Cameron’s unbearably silly Music for Imaginary Films. "Ring Finger" kicks us right back into the guitar-heavy stabs of the first track, and the album pretty much maintains its balance of synths and guitars throughout the remainder.
RJ’s worst move is his decision to sing. "Making Days Longer," a synth journey through a late-’80s video game, features painful vocals from RJ that come off about as well as Hi-Tek’s rapping on Hi-Teknology. The funky bass line of "Clean Living" is rendered toothless by the half-whispered crooning that can’t be saved by the hand-clap break-beat three quarters of the way into the track.
The best songs — "Since We Last Spoke," "Someone’s Second Kiss" and the busy finale, "One Day" — have a strong bond with all of RJ’s best work, but it’s also with these songs that the album’s new directions reap rewards. The evolution toward what RJ is so clearly intending doesn’t have to be disappointing; if the music he is aping is not particularly good, it’s certainly invigorating. But energy is exactly what tracks like "Making Days Longer" and the dreadful Cars parody "Through the Walls" are lacking.
It took DJ Shadow six years to disappoint music fans with The Private Press, the 2002 follow-up to his genre-defining debut, Endtroducing. The best thing you can say about the new RJD2 album is that he got the sophomore slump out of the way in a little under two years. But Since We Last Spoke is similar to The Private Press in that it’s really not that bad, or even bad at all. I enjoyed The Private Press when it was released two years ago. But I listened to Endtroducing last week — when was the last time you put on The Private Press? Since We Last Spoke will fade from memory in a short amount of time, well before anyone will even take Deadringer out of their normal rotation.