Excellent Italian Greyhound
(Touch & Go)
There are bands I like to listen to in social settings (The Rolling Stones, most mid-tempo indie rock), some that I prefer to dine on alone (Boredoms, Will Oldham by-products) and there are those that I love to talk about. The Rolling Stones is also in this category (but there is trace little left to talk about) as is The Fall (but really, I almost feel they exist now as tremors of a long-gone earthquake). My most favorite band to talk about is Shellac, the knife sharp trio of Steve Albini, Todd Trainer and Bob Weston who plug instruments into amplifiers, and that sound is picked up by microphones and turned into electricity. That current is trapped on some sort of recording device that later gets sent to Abbey Road and put on other recording devices, and from these recordings, duplicates are made on discs of plastic or vinyl (preferably vinyl.) Then these duplicates are sent to retail outlets where they are available for purchase. And that is it. Oh, and they play live every once in a while, but otherwise, Shellac runs a tight circuit with little resistance to their signal.
I know this not only because Albini lays down part of this process in the opening 8-minute dirge "The End of Radio" but because the band has taken on a mythical lack of mythology over the years which blows up your skirt like an icy Lake Michigan blast. They are one of those groups about whose neck the albatross of integrity is irremovable. The field of mathematics wishes it had Shellac's reputation for integrity. Their records are not released on seasonal cycles, in fact its been seven years since 1000 Hurts, rather they appear when they appear, and are bought when they appear. No promos, no showcases, no nothing. This staunch anti-marketing is the most cost effective marketing there is. And the real rub is, the band is awesome enough to fit these shoes.
Shellac records are known for their extremely icy tone, and Excellent Italian Greyhound is equally crystalline, but there is a degree of atomic precision here that even surpasses their previous albums. Tracks like "Steady as She Goes" are classic rock power riffs with all the fat boiled off the carcass, with an angry Albini shouting from inside the cage of exposed ribs. "Be Prepared" and (large stretches of "The End of Radio") showcase a heightened level of expressionism in the percussion. It bears the mark of good jazz drum solos, erupting as fragments in digital silence, before the song really gets going, destroying your sonic Tokyo like Mecha-Bo Diddley.
My favorite Shellac songs, though, are the epic ones, and "genuine Lulabelle" is the shining example here. The guitar goes from blowtorch-hewn blues ambience to locomotive descructo train in a moment's notice, the drums rattle like loose shutters ina windstorm, and the vocals are barely there, largely a capella. I always think the Adrian Belew era King Crimson is a good comparison for Shellac. They both have that insect sense of precision, and yet are capable of delivering a loose, rambling mess of a song like this and come off brilliant. I can hear Art Blakey's use of negative space in here, as much as I can hear Jandek use of negative humanity. Pieces like this are what I want poetry slams to be like - with danger dripping form the loosened ropes just before the knot tightens and causes the whole thing to reel like a startled horse.
The real shocker on the record is "Kittypants" and instrumental with a, can I say this?, sweet melody. A sing-song wisp of a Shellac song? It feels wrong even saying it, but that's exactly what it is. Fortunately the diesel engine of "Boycott" kicks in before I start entertaining notions of Cat Power doing one of her cameos she does with the band. To be honest, this whole record strikes me as the happiest in their catalog
What always captivates me about Shellac, is that there seems to be something in it begging to be figured out. On the surface its all man to machine to memory, but the nuances, the flora in the cracks, that is where their magic lies. And unlike other groups, where transcendence serendipitously appears as a part of sloppy chops, you get the feeling that each weird growth is as carefully tended as a bonsai tree. I don't know if this is the finest album, nor am I sure that such things even matter. I do know the way the hammer swings on "Paco" beats out the dents in my sheet metal psyche, and the garage interlock rock of the appropriately named "Spoke" makes me feel I could put the world into some workable order by force, if only I had the sense of purpose and steady hand of this band. Shellac is an amazing band that continues to get better with each passing epoch between records. The vague unspoken promise of another Shellac album in the next decade is enough to keep me going.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com