Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Shellac: Excellent Italian Greyhound


Photo by Greg Schaal

The anticipation that surrounded the last two weeks leading up to the release of Shellac's newest album, Excellent Italian Greyhound, seemed to be of a bygone era. It was a lovely experience to see and talk to so many guys and gals, young and old alike, who were actually excited about the physical release of a new record. Not just the usual, "Yeah, I'm an asshole. I got this leaked download a month early." That's a cool little party for you, but where's the communal joy in that? Shellac has not forgotten the art of the record as a complete package, utilizing everything from a free CDR with vinyl releases to the real maple syrup slathered on the logo of one of their seven inches. To an almost annoyingly geeky degree, people look forward to their album art and packaging as much as the music, and as annoying as that can be, it is a rarity to see that kind of care in music today, from bands as well as their fans.

Jay Ryan, of The Bird Machine fame, did the cover art of the outer sleeve, adding to a legacy that includes an incredible oversized print for the Touch and Go anniversary last year and countless show posters for many noteworthy bands. Some of you may remember his Art Prostitute exhibition that was the triumphant swan song of the Denton gallery and the Good Records book signing that he did in correlation with said event. Ryan is also a talented musician, who played in Dianogah and the pathetically underrated Hubcap. The inside artwork features more literal interpretations of the album title featuring drummer Todd Trainer's miniature greyhound, Uffizi.

Once you get past the novel and beautiful cover art, there is the music. No amount of jaw-dropping cover art would matter in the slightest if Shellac hadn't remained a force in underground music simply by continuing to play sporadically these past seven years and adding to an oft-stated declaration as being one of if not the greatest live bands on earth. The only downside to having such a dangerous live reputation lies in having to somehow represent all those unique moments on record. Those who have seen Shellac live this decade (or heard bootlegs and live radio sessions, etc.) have become familiar with their yet-to-be-recorded live staples, and at some point the group seemed to have amassed enough material for a new record. In fact, they've often stated as much, repeatedly announcing the album title when asked by audiences at one of the traditional Q and A sessions at their shows. I was convinced it was a joke, and I suppose it is.

The idea of what the record would sound like and the record itself creates a disparate gap that is either a pleasant or unpleasant surprise depending on what you're expecting. I had grown to really enjoy the live versions of the unrecorded material so it is admittedly tough to live up to those recordings and live experiences. As much of an impressive band as Shellac is in the studio, I believe the standard they have set live is now unsurpassable. The rawness and immediacy of live versions of "Genuine Lullabelle" and "Spoke" in particular render them undeniably definitive, and I'm not just saying that because Strongbad is featured on Lullabelle. In fact, I've never been a Homestarrunner fan, and I'm as perplexed as anyone about the cameo. Albini is such an outspoken critic of such accepted cultural changes of the past thirty years (from Protools to Graffiti Art) that his inclusion of an internet cartoon character seemed beyond unlikely. It's not just that I don't find Strongbad funny, but it ruins the quiet intensity of the song. I'm sure that's somehow the point but it doesn't make it anymore enjoyable. Lullabelle sounds like it formed in the long improvisational stretches Shellac includes in their sets, especially in the classic "Billiard Player Song."

Another surprising aspect of the album is how much the inclusion of bass player Bob Weston as lead vocalist stands out on 2 of the album's 7 vocal tracks. Weston is a much different vocalist than Albini, and that's not exactly a plus- he alternates between a soft monotone and a shout that makes him a dead ringer for D. Boon, and although his shouting has always been a great part of Shellac's sound, his singing has more of a "modern rock" tinge to it, which falls flat in comparison to his more spirited vocal attempts. His voice was heard on two tracks on the last album, but they blended in more seamlessly compared to his work on EIG. The record has more crooning than any other Shellac record, and it seems that a lot of chances were taken in that regard- there's even an actual harmony on "Elephant."

The playing itself is on par with some of Shellac's best work, a case in point being the gorgeous instrumentals, "Kittypants" and "Paco." "Paco" also contains a sound not included on most Shellac songs: fingerpicking, as opposed to the usual stabs and scrapes of Albini's metal plectrum. The result is a beautifully subtle texture not often heard in his guitar playing, a style usualy noted for it's harshness of tone and choppy, terse technique. The repetitive bassline of the album opener "The End Of Radio" recalls their most extreme exercise in unchangingness, "Didn't We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are" from 1998's Terraform.

There is nothing too far out of the ordinary as far as Shellac's overall approach here, as the more straightforward aggression of At Action Park and the drawn-out experimental sides of The Futurist are still recognizable throughout the record. I would have to strongly disagree with the contention in the Pitchfork review that Shellac sounds "indebted" to other acts on EIG , as if referencing of this sort was something new. I would say that Albini has consciously taken from groups like AC/DC, Golden Earring and ZZ Top going back almost twenty years or more in his career. The classic rock chugging and throbbing is nothing new. A big difference in Shellac circa 2007 is that it seems more apparent than ever that the band is a an on-again/off-again recording project, something that wasn't always so detectable. Terraform especially seemed like a cohesive statement, even though the songs were recorded over a number of years. The new record seems much more like a scraping together of aged and unreleased material ("Spoke" has been around since the mid-90's and "Be Prepared" at least since 2002), and has the feel of something that might just have been overworked live. Perhaps the worst thing about this record is that it doesn't include what I felt was the best song the band had written this decade, "Hang On." Albini stated at some point that the lyrics seemed to coincidentally reference the Iraq war, something he definitely didn't feel comfortable with. In order to avoid any sort of accusations of Bono-like aspirations, the song was dropped. If you can track down a live recording of this, I highly recommend it. I'm not one to whole-heartedly endorse downloading or bootlegging, but that damn song is perhaps my favorite piece of music that I've heard in the '00's, and I'm hoping it's released on a seven-inch that I can overpay for at some point.

For die-hard Shellac fans, which I have no qualms admitting to being, this will be another record that's welcome with open arms, ending a seven year wait. It may not really be "best album" material, but it still shreds most of the sewage that surrounds it on the Good Records or Insound sales charts. Even if Shellac is in danger of showing their age or releasing their possibly worst recording, this could still easily be the best release of 2007. I don't know if I will ever pay another band that high of a compliment: They could beat you on their worst day.

Excellent Italian Greyhound was released on June 5th, 2007. The vinyl version is packaged with a free CDR of the entire album.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous ed said...

Good review. Shellac could take a shit on an SM57 (which they probably have done..) and it'd sound better than most of the sewage surrounding it at Good Records.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

I never thought I'd hear someone talk about Hubcap again, let alone in Texas. Hell, I haven't thought about them in years. I saw them in 94, but didn't know the Dianogah connection. Both were good bands.

I haven't heard the new Shellac, but I've been looking forward to it. Good review.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GUYS! LOOK! DL SAID SOMETHING NEGATIVE ABOUT THE SHELLAC ALBUM! HE/SHE DIDN'T LOVE STRONGBAD! WHAT A STUPID FAGSHOLE!

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm one of those buttholes that like bootleg shellac records and the live material. i know they don't like you bootlegging their live stuff 'cuz they want you to experience the actual live show, but when these dingbat geniuses don't come around often, and you have a love for them like i do, you do what you have to do for the fix - so...

but anyways - when EIG came out, i'm one of those buttholes who bought both the LP vinyl and CD, i wasn't blown away. i was happy to hear 'end of radio' and 'spoke' and 'steady as she goes' (featured on 'burn to shine' dvd, but it wasn't "new" and the less than massive gale that blew through me didn't send me to my ass as i was hoping.

in short, boys and girls, the record is fantastic, but unlike their previous releases, when the wax stops spinning, i can put on another record and enjoy that instead of wearing the needle down to a nub from playing it so much.

yours,
the old man

4:02 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

Which one of you Deep Snapper guys wrote that? Har.

:*

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Alot of free time in the studio. - THE ALBUM!"

7:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Even if Shellac is in danger of showing their age or releasing their possibly worst recording, this could still easily be the best release of 2007."

your favorite band put out a record.
that's awesome for you, sweetie.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if i was a preacher...

tell you what

id save a million souls

even you 10:17

1:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

shellac

over-fucking-rated

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Mei Zen De said...

SHELLAC - just a fire in the middle of the street, in some streer of my city: http://mei-zende.miniville.fr/
Come to see how my city grows to million of people!!!

5:03 PM  

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