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The mischief and moodiness of Shellac

The legendary noise-rock trio plays a sold-out show on March 13 at BarleyPop Live.

The legendary noise-rock trio plays a sold-out show on March 13 at BarleyPop Live. | By Mike Noto and Scott Gordon

Photo by Rich Thane on Flickr.

Shellac is one of those bands that can come off as willfully difficult, yet the noise-rock the trio has been making since 1992 is aimed squarely at your lizard brain. Fractious, harsh, and prone to rhythms that keep the listener just slightly off-balance, Shellac also incorporates a great deal of humor into its music, often writing songs that simultaneously appeal to and mercilessly mock the most gruesome extremes of masculinity. Somehow it also seems perfectly in character that the band’s Friday, March 13 show at BarleyPop Live was announced and promptly sold out during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Oh well. Whether you’re in for this steely abrasive treat or not, explore some of Shellac’s variety and nuance with this selection of six tracks from across the band’s discography.

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“Billiard Player Song”

Initially, outsiders would have been forgiven for thinking Shellac was a slight variation on more of the same from Steve Albini. The music still seemed rooted in combative bursts of noise and rhythm, Albini’s guitar still slashed and exploded, and the acidic harangue of his voice had not subsided. But there were actually immediate and notable differences from what had come before. For one thing, the powerful, metallically scraping clang and fizz of his guitar tone in previous projects (such as Big Black) had been refined into the aural equivalent of razor wire scraping across aluminum foil. Now Albini’s guitar was confrontational as much for its nearly shocking tinniness as anything else. For their part, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer offered a very influential take on the role of the rhythm section that emphasized impossibly stony, ruthlessly precise bass lines and crushing, yet contained drum beats. And the band was also clearly as focused on exploring obsessively sculpted repetition to extremes as they were uninterested in offering any kind of traditional rock and roll payoff.

However, perhaps the greatest initial proof that Shellac was a marked evolution from former stylistic pastures was the non-album cut “Billiard Player Song.” Coming from the 1993 7-inch EP The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History, it offered a surprisingly openhearted, sensitive and writerly portrait of the everyday cruelty of a bad marriage and the environments that allow misogyny to fester unchecked. It was all set to a stop-start riff that sounded far more like first-wave emo than anything anyone might have expected out of the man who was known for explosions of sizzling distemper like Big Black’s “Kerosene” and “Bad Penny.” Hearing Albini scream “He lied to her, with a perfectly straight face” with obviously outraged sincerity showed that, in their own way, Shellac was concerned with much more from life than caricatures of human ugliness. —Mike Noto

“The Idea Of North”

Shellac has not often been known for stark quietude, but At Action Park’s “The Idea Of North,” presumably named after the famous radio documentary by Glenn Gould, was a smart and enjoyable digression into less abrasive territory. It reflected the influence of the then-developing post-rock movement: even if Albini hadn’t written a famous rave review for Slint’s Spiderland, you’d be able to hear the slight homage here, and Shellac do as good a job exploring that sound as anyone could ask for. It also provided some needed diversity within the band’s already well-defined stylistic template. The hushed intro, all ethereally chiming guitar neck taps and rigidly memorable drumming, blooms into a groove that utilizes palpably controlled restraint even when it becomes fuzzed out, and the atmosphere of the song captures an appropriately icy feeling of unforgiving lonesomeness. Albini’s muttered, fragmented tale of a recluse slowly losing his grip on reality in a snowy wilderness (the image of burning stacks of unsent letters for heat is a nice touch) completes the picture. —Mike Noto

“Rush Job”

Shellac’s 1998 album Terraform is best known for its opening and closing tracks: a 12-minute exercise in bludgeoning, concentrated repetition made for deep listening (“Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are”), and a brief near-power pop tune working a neat extended metaphor about the psychology of policemen (“Copper”). But the six songs in between showed the band at its most freewheeling and spontaneous, and “Rush Job” is perhaps the most effective example of the try-anything spirit that seemed to grip Shellac during this album. Starting off with what sounds like a guitar and bass imitating stretched rubber bands, the song soon reveals itself as bizarrely structured but catchy, with blocky, poppy bass chords from Bob Weston during the chorus and guitar work from Albini that darts between melodic double-stops and completely off-key guitar bends. Even if you get your head around the music, though, good luck understanding whatever scientific obscurities Weston is singing about. —Mike Noto

“Watch Song”

The concluding track from 2000’s masterpiece 1000 Hurts captures Shellac at its most hilariously nasty over some of the band’s most deliriously tight and well-crafted riffage. Albini stutters his chest-puffed way through the role of one of the most boorishly aggressive jerks in his catalog with audible glee (you can practically smell the cheap beer and feel him trying to poke you in the chest), and he initially seems to be challenging someone to a fistfight over selling him a bad watch. And it plays very well as a song about someone trying to provoke a fight for no good reason, though the lyrics are remarkably clinical for the subject on second glance. But the song is apparently actually about wanting to have a fight with the watch itself—which makes everything even more absurdly funny than it already was. It also helps that the music behind this beautifully ridiculous concept features some of the band’s best-ever playing, complete with Albini executing hairpin turns on top of Weston and Trainer’s locomotive hammering, along with the entire band speeding up and losing time (like a broken watch might) at the end. —Mike Noto

“Paco”

Instrumentals have always been a part of Shellac’s repertoire, but “Paco,” from 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, is notable for how it manages to weld together seemingly disparate parts into a constantly shifting whole while emphasizing the group’s genuinely democratic coherence as an ensemble. The song opens with a confusing but mesmerizing riff from Albini that delicately hammers on and off around a few ringing guitar strings, and Weston’s bass and Trainer’s drums sound even more thunderous than usual when they come in. The typical ideas about arrangements in rock groups—guitar in the spotlight while bass and drums provide support—sound like they’ve been turned on their heads here, since the rhythm section is clearly playing on top of the bed of sound that the guitar provides. But even then, neither bass nor drums take a dominant role over the other. Soon, though, everything falls away as a second, fingerpicked riff taps its way through some melancholic, noirish chords, and just like that, the roles have reversed again and the guitar clearly leads the rhythm section as the listener might expect. Even so, the music still takes a few more unexpected turns before coming to a close with a few stop-time thumps. Nothing sounds left to chance, but the instrumental hasn’t had the life suffocated out of it either. It’s as complex, well-plotted and vital as it needs to be. —Mike Noto

“Gary”

Shellac can pull off a “saaaad fuckin’ song,” but rarely one as devastatingly sorrowful as “Gary.” The band’s take on one of T-Bone Slim‘s Wobbly labor songs provides a rare moment of gloom on Shellac’s most recent studio album, 2014’s Dude Incredible. As Albini has explained, the lyrics are about Gary, Indiana and industrialist Elbert Henry Gary, who founded the once-prosperous city as a company town for U.S. Steel. Time and the ravages of the post-industrial economy help Shellac turn the song into a bleak portrait of Lake Michigan’s corrugated shores, pairing brutal dynamics with the feel of a sea-chanty waltz. Between the eerie choruses of “oh, what a pal was Gary,” Albini’s vocal brings a sense of true anguish and terrible awe to the song’s images of a “ribbon of steel, glowing red, unreal” and a smokestack “like a 10-bit cigar.” The song goes after the steel baron personally—”Gary, I hope that you’re proud / Of the smoke and the stink and the crowd”—and reminds us of the impermanence of all human endeavors (“Time rambles on / Hush, we are gone”), perhaps to further indict the hubris of the bosses or to emphasize that life is too precious to waste on drudgery and degradation. Most of us don’t turn to Steve Albini’s vocals for pathos in any conventional sense, but his performance on this track is downright haunting. —Scott Gordon

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