Back for a shellacking
Like, say, Lou Reed and John Cale in the shadow of the Velvet Underground, that irascible Chicagoan Steve Albini has labored for most of his life under the combined blessing/curse of his first significant band having influenced countless musicians who’ve followed in its wake, and with those Big Black recordings still sounding mind-blowing and light years ahead of their time now, three decades later.
I was there, and yeah, it really was that great, as John “Jughead” Pierson amply illustrates in the fascinating new episode of his Jughead’s Basement podcast, which recounts the history of Big Black with a special focus on its classic album Atomizer (1986). (Click on the link above or the image below for the stream or free download.)
As Albini denies in that forum but as I maintain with a few comments of my own, the singer and guitarist’s roots as a wordsmith—he came to Chicago from Montana to study at what was then Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism—are significant. His and Santiago Durango’s guitars absolutely were groundbreaking and thoroughly unique, as were Dave Riley’s fonky grooves and Roland the drum machine’s inhuman rhythms. And they were paired with some hauntingly powerful melodies, even if Albini would no doubt denigrate the word “hooks.” But the strength of the music was matched by the conceptual and lyrical heft of Albini’s reportage-as-horror storytelling, as evidenced by the harrowing tales in songs such as “Jordan, Minnesota,” “Kerosene,” “Cables,” and “Il Duce” (and remember, Mussolini also started as journalist).
With a few notable exceptions—“Prayer to God” from 2000’s 1000 Hurts springs to mind—Albini pretty much stopped caring about the lyrics when he launched Shellac with bassist-vocalist Bob Weston and drummer-vocalist Todd Trainer in 1992... or at least he stopped having much of an impact with his words, focusing instead, sometimes with overly clinical, near-math-rock precision, on those Spartan arrangements and massive, jackhammer-harsh sounds, while the hooks became sparse to non-existent. Then, too, the searing humor of old also was too often confined to the live shows, via those annoyingly long bursts of stage patter.
While it’s always a joy just to hear these three musicians playing together with such obvious enthusiasm and impressive synchronicity—listen to the intricate rhythmic interactions on the instrumental “The People’s Microphone”—much of the success of Shellac’s brilliant new Dude Incredible, the trio’s fifth album and first new release in seven years, can be found in the shorter, tighter arrangements, a bigger dollop of melody, and dare I say it a little more focus on song craft, especially in the lyrics. No, Albini hasn’t returned to lyrics as tabloid journalism, and he’s done his best to swat us away from searching for meaning in the tunes in an amusing track-by-track breakdown with Exclaim.ca. Then, too, he is not Shellac’s only lyricist. So credit the whole group with the intentional-or-not conceptual framework for this disc, created by a trio of “surveyor”-themed songs, but it works.
Apparently the boys were riffing during their infrequent gatherings in the clubhouse of Electrical Audio on the historical oddity of many of the Founding Fathers having worked as surveyors—“meaning,” as Albini says, “they took a chain and a pole and paced off the physical dimensions of our new country… But if you think of the word ‘survey,’ that means that you're assessing something from a distance and measuring it. There are a lot of circumstances where there’s an external observer surveying what’s going on. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a person these days. It could be a satellite or a drone or a surveillance camera.”
And so we have the human red-light cameras of Shellac giving us their observations on the group dynamics of broism in the title track, “Riding Bikes,” and “You Came In Me” (they’re not sexist, they just portray sexists on LP); mulling about how the modern world breeds obsessive compulsion (“Compliant”), and paying homage to the history and ugly beauty of that blighted industrial burg to our south, “Gary,” which ranks as the funniest this band’s ever been—though that’s not to discount the brief a cappella Shellac-as-Whiffenpoofs intro to “All the Surveyors,” or Albini’s angry bird caws later in that tune, which are both a real hoot, too.
Scoff at the aged punk’s curmudgeonly public persona if you will, and maintain your disdain for his absolutism if you must. But avoid Dude Incredible at your own loss, because it’s better than Shellac ever has been, and it’s as good as uncompromising rock ever gets.
Shellac, Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.