Steve Albini has made a career of being a cranky, confrontational, old bastard in constant search of perfect audio fidelity. From his earliest days in the industrial punk band Big Black, Albini has challenged his fans to tolerate him with sarcastic, biting lyrics that often satirize sexism, racism, and homophobia by playing them out to their logical extreme.
A Nation of Misfits: Cranky, but who Gives a Fuck-Shellac
In Rapeman, he actively courted controversy, forcing an often hostile audience to look past the band's name to the equally uninviting music within. But in 1992 he hit the trifecta with his trio of malcontents in Shellac.
(Guys from Shellac)
With guitar and bass distorted beyond recognition, Albini shouts often impenetrable lyrics with the same cadence as the guy who stands on your street corner ranting to everyone who walks by about nothing in particular. You know he's angry. You're pretty sure he's angry at you. But you have no idea what he's talking about. And all of this, of course, is recorded with the most perfect possible sound quality.
Since the late 80's, while Albini has moonlighted as a punk rock legend, he's been the go-to producer for bands looking to add a little edge to their sound.
Although he prefers the term “engineer,” and sometimes works uncredited, his work is unmistakable. Steve was the man behind the desk for Nirvana's swansong In Utero, as well as The Pixies Surfa Rosa, Gogol Bordello's Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike and (in a move that has only bolstered their image as Nirvana copycats) Bush's Razorblade Suitcase.
(Shellac, Burn To Shine Steady As She Goes)
He strives to capture a band as they are in rehearsal, meticulously capturing every detail of the sound of the room. He avoids overdubbing instruments, and prefers to record all tracks live giving a certain unpolished immediacy to his recordings. He keeps vocals low in the mix, and pushes the drums way out front believing that there is no more beautiful sound than an untreated drum kit in an empty room. He uses a minimum of processing, and favors large open dynamics.
In many ways he can be seen as the anti Rick Rubin, whose polished, compressed, and heavily multi-tracked sound has made hit-makers out of bands who had previously been known for being a little rough around the edges. (I eagerly await the new Rubin-produced Gogol Bordello disc for comparison...) Apologies to fans of bassist Bob Weston, a talented engineer and producer in his own right, who deserves much credit for Mission of Burma's recent resurgence (and also a special place in my liberal suburban heart for occasionally engineering NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me).
Read nearly any interview (and you should. They're always entertaining...), and you will be treated to a lengthy explanation of why digital recording is ruining the world, in which he will sometimes frankly and openly insult a band who had previously paid him a lot of money to produce a record for how terrible their most recent record sounds. He's an outspoken critic of the major record labels (in fairness, try and find me someone who's not...) and in a fascinating essay / rant The Problem With Music he actually breaks down the finances to show that the system is rigged such that a young band with a hit record can actually come out of it in debt.
(Shellac - Prayer to God - Dublin - October 28th 2008)
In The End of Radio from 2007's Excellent Italian Greyhound, Albini mourns the slow self-provoked death of music over the last few decades. There are few topics on which Steve is not capable of lengthy diatribe, however he has frequently stated that all Shellac songs revolve around his two favorite subjects: Canada and Baseball.
Although there's a surprising amount of truth to his joke (the excellent Canada from 1998's Terraforming LP is a good place to start for new fans), Shellac's songs move past Albini's early obsessions with the extreme fringes and extreme attitudes of American culture. On 2000's 1000 Hurts LP especially the subject matter is often deeply personal. Shellac's subvert-everything attitude is most evident in the sarcastic Squirrel Song with its opening lines “This is a sad fucking song. We'll be lucky if I don't bust out crying” which follows and immediately undercuts the tragic album opening song about infidelity, Prayer To God.
Fun tip: If you catch your soon-to-be-ex-best-friend with your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and send him an e-mail quoting Prayer To God in its entirety, odds are good he will avoid you at all cost for at least 6 years! Ah, good times...
(Mr. Cranky, Steve Albini)
Critics often dismiss their music for sounding the same across their albums. And true, Shellac's use of heavy distortion on top of musically simple but rhythmically complex repetitive riffs combined with Albini's hungover monotone shout can make their songs sound downright amelodic. Spoke from Excellent Italian Greyhound briefly flirts with melody with a 6 second cover of The Who's Rotosound Strings before launching into one of the least melodic songs they ever recorded.
But the payoff comes in the intricate interplay between Albini's angular guitar (which owes more than a little to Tim Kerr's work in The Big Boys...), Bob Weston's pummeling bass, and Todd Trainer's lurching dynamic drums. Their songs use unusual time signatures and sudden tempo shifts without sounding self-indulgent as is all too often the case in math rock. Their arrangements are bold, stretching simple phrases well past the breaking point. Terraforming's opening track Didn't We Deserve A Look At The Way You Really Are holds on a 4 note bass riff for most of its 12 minute running time without building on it or changing, literally upending the punk/indie/emo cliché of ending an album repeating a single riff building to a giant climax (in all fairness, I've been guilty of it on almost ever album I've ever recorded...).
With their “screw what anyone thinks, we're doing things the way we want” attitude, Shellac exemplifies the soul of punk. Their uncompromising sound flies in the face of what you'd expect a punk band to sound like without sacrificing an ounce of the intensity or gallows humor. Ruggedly DIY (it's easy to be DIY when your band is fronted by one of the greatest recording engineers in the history of recorded sound...), Shellac avoids using contracts, and works exclusively with labels and companies run by friends.
Albini is a vocal supporter of Chicago indie Touch And Go Records, describing them at their 25 year anniversary as “the best thing to happen to music in my lifetime.” (occasionally, Steve has nice things to say about people. There's a rumor going around that in person, he's actually a nice guy. I choose not to believe it.)
With each member having their own steady “day job,” the band has the luxury of making music without label pressure or fan expectations. They don't care if they sell 10 records or 10,000. Their touring schedule seems dictated by a philosophy of playing whenever they damn well feel like it. But their unconventional performances are always worth catching when they come around, with their mid-show audience Q and A session. After nearly 30 years of obnoxious music and outspoken comments, Albini and co have become an oddly beloved institution. In the dysfunctional family of punk rock, they're the cantankerous grandfather who figures he's made it this long, now he can do whatever the hell he wants. And he does.
Vinyl, Digital, or Torrent: There are two ways to go on this one. You can buy it on vinyl and hear the music as the band intended and get the often amazing album art in tow (you might want to upgrade your speakers too while you're at it...) Alternately, since odds are good that Steve Albini has at some point in his life said something derisive and unprompted about your mother, you can out-Albini him and download the torrent at the lowest bitrate you can find and listen exclusively through Apple earbuds. The choice is yours.