What to say about Steve Albini? I can tell you this much—he never played Texas. I heard someone say once that Albini hates the South and avoids playing shows there. I don’t blame him. I left the land of pick up trucks, barbecue and big belt buckles for Brooklyn. So it’s with great anticipation that I look forward to finally seeing Shellac during their three-night stand in New York.
Of course we all know Steve Albini. The notoriously cranky producer has lent his hand to many an album with a know-how that shirks the digital crutches employed by big studios for that big cheese rock sound. Although Albini has been known to record such artists like less than obscure rockers The Pixies and Nirvana, many would argue his technique has a certain honestly and purity that has been given much ink including articles in DIY recording zine Tape Op.
Steve Albini the musician has served as one of the most influential purveyors of caustic post-punk. His cult outfits Big Black, Rapeman, and now Shellac have left an indelible mark on numerous bands hoping to achieve the same level of intensity and innovation. His telltale metallic guitar screech is instantly recognizable, alternating from tinny kettledrum to nails on the chalkboard. Equally identifiable is Albini’s sneering voice as it wavers and bellows about such themes as infidelity and the frustrating unreliability of machines.
But the man doesn’t do it alone. For almost a decade, Albini has gotten a little help from his friends. Equally notable producer Bob Weston (known for work with Sebadoh and Archers of Loaf) provides accompanying screams and busy bass lines that are low, melodic and a little dirty. Drummer Todd Trainer plays like a human drum machine set on “crush”. The songs are intricate and tense and Shellac plays them only like they can. There is no adequate comparison as they proved the two nights I saw them.
At the Knitting Factory, my boyfriend and I almost get our asses kicked by a buffoon in a leather jacket. He shoves us out of the way following the lackluster performance of Consonant; the Simon-and-Garfunkel-meets-Guided-by-Voices band headed by ex-of Burma’s Clint Conley and The New Year’s Matt Kadane on drums. A heated exchange between my boyfriend and the dude convince me that telling security isn’t such a bad idea. A bouncer then moves the bully to the balcony where we suspect he spent the rest of the night dripping water on our heads and plotting revenge. It makes the show a little uncomfortable and we cut out shortly after the encore to avoid confrontation. The whole ordeal makes me feel too much like I’m back in high school, but I feel better when a skinny indie rock boy tells me I did the right thing. Score one for the nerds, who after all, seem to make up the largest contingent of Shellac fans.
Steve Albini is king of angry nerds. He shows up onstage in his studio uniform—gray coveralls emblazoned with an “E” on the back for Electrical Audio Recording. He has put on a little weight and looks very much like a Ghostbuster- era Rick Moranis as he putters around onstage. There isn’t much to set up seeing as how he and Bob Weston have constructed giant mirror image silver boxes for their amps with only one big control knob. They place Todd Trainer’s ‘60s Ludwig kit front and center. His cymbals are placed really high for extra wash or at least so he can look like a bad ass. But Trainer doesn’t need gimmicks to be incredible. The man sweats beats—a driving, pounding, holding the sticks backwards kind of rhythm that holds up a mix of songs mostly off albums 1000 Hurts and Terraform. Trainer sweats so much that one fan is prompted to ask during the Q and A section that Bob Weston conducts during tuning if Todd sweats for all of them. Weston snidely answers, “I sweat, too. Look at me, I’m not even moving and I’m sweating.”
This is one thing that I hadn’t counted on. Shellac is funny. They are self-deprecating and joke easily with the audience. Steve smiles and shrugs when he pulls the cable out of his mike during the second song and the audience laughs. When someone yells that he is fat, he quips, “I know I’m fat. One of my projects this year was to get a belly.”
Shellac is also tight, impeccably so. Even spontaneous moments like the break in “Watch Song”, where Weston and Albini stomp around onstage is choreographed. The cymbal grab by Weston and Albini at the end of “A Minute” is choreographed. Albini’s between song banter is practiced. “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me? This is my final transmission.” But it doesn’t make the performance stale or less exciting. It just makes it seem more like a strategy, their plan of attack for maximum entertainment. Because Shellac do want to please.
For the North Six show, the boys from Illinois pull out all the hits they didn’t play at Knitting Factory. There is the slow, menacing version of “The Rambler” and a squealing rendition of “Wing Walker” where Albini screams into the pickups of his aluminum necked Travis Bean. The audience also loves it when Weston and Albini sing the theme song from Strange Brew before ripping into “Canada”, confirming once and for all my Rick Moranis look-alike theory. You never do see the two in the same room at the same time, do you?
But if Shellac was onstage, could you notice anything else?