Since releasing his Def Jux debut Deadringer in 2002, Ohio turntablist RJD2 has become an acclaimed, in-demand DJ, frequently compared to the genre's previous go-to guy, DJ Shadow. Like Shadow, RJD2 started spinning for rap acts while working on his underground magnum opus in his spare time. And like Shadow, RJD2 has been anxious to grow. But where Shadow devoted the bulk of his latest album to revisiting straight-up hip-hop, RJD2 has jumped from a hip-hop label to the more alt-rock-minded XL Recordings, and is channeling his inner Jon Brion.
The Third Hand doesn't lack the kind of mix-and-mash wizardry that made RJD2's reputation. Most of the tracks start with a foundation of R&B/funk beats, layered with guitar, piano, and abstract noise, and even in the songs with vocals, the voices are used primarily as another instrumental element, not a focus point. About half of The Third Hand is given over to dub exercises and soundtrack-ready soundscapes, while the other half pushes fairly conventional alt-pop, heavy on the Beatles-esque flourishes.
Sadly, RJD2 can't compete in the latter league. His acoustic snippet "Someday" comes off like a subpar Elliott Smith imitation, while even with their purposefully disjointed rhythms, "You Never Had It So Good" and "Laws Of The Gods" lack the melodic and structural imagination of other musicians who've spliced together spare beats and psychedelic hum, like Eels or New Radicals. Too much of The Third Hand is bland and undistinguished, and it's made even more so by winning stoner-disco themes like "The Bad Penny" and "Sweet Piece," where RJD2 shows far more command. At his best, RJD2 can summon sounds from the stratosphere. Why would he give that up to become just another wistful DIY troubadour?