If they ever do get around to making proper robots – you know, the ones that go all homicidal in the flash of a light bulb – you’d want them to be constructed from Steve Albini’s guitar sound. A twisted, sinewy train-wreck of a noise that sounds approximately like your face being shoved into a barbed wire fence from a car window travelling at high velocity.
It’s this sound which has powered Shellac’s inimitable, bare-bones brand of rock theatre through sporadic releases since their 1994 debut At Action Park, and on Excellent Italian Greyhound, their first studio release in seven years, the deal’s essentially the same. Which is fine in one sense: their sound was always bruising but never exactly broken.
Excellent Italian Greyhound accidentally-on-purpose stumbles into being with a distracted drum-roll and Albini’s tongue-in-cheek question: “Is this thing on?” Then Bob Weston’s spartan bass line introduces the first of two sprawling non-epics that dominate the album, ‘The End Of Radio’. It is at once a doomsday scenario and grumpy-old-man lament on the state of contemporary radio: “As we come to the close of our broadcast today / this is my farewell transmission”. Albini doesn’t so much wink at his audience as implicate it in the sorry state of affairs he outlines: “That drum roll means we got a winner / If you’re the fifth caller, or any caller at all”
There are more consciously tricksy shenanigans afoot with the taut punk riffage of ‘Steady As She Goes’, the song breaking down in the middle as drummer Todd Trainer stabs petulantly at his kit for a full forty-odd seconds, before the band drops out momentarily and kicks back in to murderous life. As you’d expect from a group comprised of two-thirds renowned sound engineer, these guys have got rock down to an exact science. They know just how long to keep you waiting for the pay-off, and then keep you waiting a little bit longer. Just because they can. That transparency in their methods can be invigorating, but it’s also a little like watching a magic trick whose secret has already been spoiled. Having said that, ‘Be Prepared’ does pull the rabbit out of the hat rather well, making dynamic use of Albini’s metallic guitar scree and irascible absurdism: “I was born with no pants (be prepared) / I was born standing up (BE PREPARED!)” Again, Trainer’s percussive contribution is invaluable, the Minneapolis firebrand lashing out randomly like he’s prefacing some macabre circus highwire act, then sucking up on himself and hurling himself anew into the song’s violent careen.
As the second of the album’s eight-minute-plus centrepieces, ‘Genuine Lullabelle’ takes the silence that has always been at the heart of Shellac’s sound and stretches it almost to breaking point. A rambling vocal in which Albini repeatedly asserts his status as “the genuine article” descends into a bizarre, foul-mouthed parody of Captain Beefheart’s fast-and-bulbous surrealist dialogue - “she knows her way around a cock” - with American voiceover artist Ken Nordine lending his sonorous tones to the proceedings. After which the pretty, instrumental ‘Kittypants’ comes as welcome respite; a thistle among the record’s rigorous sub-alpine scrub. Finally, ‘Spoke’ is a raucous call-and-response rocker but it’s only half an exciting song, the garbled screams fired off between Albini and Bob Weston coming off a little hollow as opposed to witty.
Excellent Italian Greyhound is everything you’d want from a new Shellac record - terrific-sounding, expertly performed and gleefully atonal as ever, but it’s live that this legendary three-piece’s performance art really comes to life as more than the sum of its casually-displayed parts.
7Alex Denney's Score