RJD2 The Third Hand

[XL; 2007]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: sample-hop + pop vocals
Others: Beck, Caribou, Rjd2

The majority of the liner notes for The Third Hand are devoted to a story whose central theme is the apprehension that came with the creation of this record and how it was overcome: “I was recording music in a way that felt fun and exciting and was becoming natural, but I could also tell that the way I was doing things was changing. …I was kind of getting the funny face from people that I had played the music to. When the ball is rolling on something, it’s easy to hear ‘no’s about what it is you’re working on and still keep charging ahead.” When you pull the CD from the case, it reveals a photo of RJ, wide-eyed with his hand covering his mouth as if to say, “Oops.”

But this theme isn’t new, really. A self-consciousness about the reception of his work has cropped up in both previous proper LPs: Deadringer had “Salud,” an almost apologetic spoken track for such a phenomenal album; Since We Last Spoke’s timid title and lyric about “writing songs for you” also punctuated his relationship with us. I guess as a producer-turned-musician, some degree of that is to be expected, but here it feels tiresome – and even a bit like a red herring.

There are, without question, some really alien things going on in The Third Hand, but they don’t by any means dominate the album, at least not in quantity. Most of the A-side is admittedly difficult to get used to, largely on account of the vocals, which, if you’ve read anything about this record, you already know about. Double-tracked harmonies are everywhere, and delivered in a glottal croon that recalls Ben Gibbard, Chromeo’s Pee Thug, and even Gene Ween at times. It’s not pleasant. And what’s worse, the lyrics blatantly serve only as an excuse for the presence of vocals, never conveying anything compelling at all, only vaguely grand when not mundane.

The word ‘pop’ is being thrown at this record a lot, and there is a strong pop element in much of its first half. Compositionally, it’s never been unlike him to employ a verse-chorus-verse template; but these ‘choruses’ have choruses, lyrical stanzas repeated twice or more, and ironically it does a lot to suck any potential life out of these songs, as they are profoundly un-hooky and monotonous. He gives you almost nothing to hang onto, melodically, lyrically, rhythmically, or otherwise.

These worst elements of The Third Hand, as I’ve said, are neatly packed away into side A, and it can be a drag to get through. But if you do, you’ll emerge on the other side to a more musically dense landscape reminiscent of Since We Last Spoke, backloading the record with familiar stuff to place the evidence of his ‘evolution’ front and center. RJ’s said to play a bunch of instruments here, but it doesn’t show – which I suppose demonstrates his skill as a musician, sure, but I’m not listening to be impressed.

And, for a record already burdened by mediocrity, that’s a big problem. ‘Masturbatory’ would be far too harsh a criticism. But with all its conspicuous caveats and proverbial ‘new clothes,’ The Third Hand makes no secret of the fact that it is, at its core, about Rjd2. In his defense, he is trying, and it shows. A disappointment, maybe, but that’s to be expected – and shouldn’t we prefer that he want to give us something new?

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