SHELLAC: DUDE INCREDIBLE
Praise the sweet baby Jesus! Sing Hallelujah brothers and sisters, TG404 has finally arrived from Chicago’s finest forges. Oh, pardon my geeky fanboy music-speak; TG404 is the catalog number of the latest release from Touch and Go Records recording titans, Shellac. The new album, entitled Dude Incredible, is the first new Shellac record in seven years and only the second in fourteen! Shellac, arguably the tightest threesome in rock, has been elevating the art of the power trio to new levels for over twenty years and four albums. Featuring record engineering geniuses Steve Albini and Bob Weston on guitar and bass respectively, as well as the coolest motherfucker to ever sit behind a drum kit, Todd Trainer, Shellac are unlike any band that you’ve ever encountered. With Albini’s talent behind the recording console at his Electrical Audio studio in near constant demand and with Weston in the same position at his (Chicago Mastering Service) and Trainer managing a warehouse and shipping company; Shellac has one of the most unique situations in indie rock: They only release records when they are damn good and ready and they only tour when it suits them to do so. Their live shows are the most fascinating mixture of intensity and humour, even going so far as to include question and answer sessions amidst all the massive riffing.
As mentioned, Dude Incredible has been in the making for seven years, but if you had been lucky enough to have seen one of their shows in the intervening years you most likely would have heard one of the nine songs that feature on the new record. At this point in the game, it’s a fair bet that no Shellac fan is going to be disappointed with what they hear on Dude Incredible, as the band are such creatures of habit and so unwilling to compromise their musical principles. Because the same guitars get plugged into the same amps, while the same minimal drum kit beats out the same rhythmic abrasion, the Shellac discography has had a remarkable level of quality control. As per usual, these new songs deliver everything one has come to expect from Shellac: razor sharp riffs, scathing lyrical content, a tight as shit rhythm section (well there is no “section” per se, they are all the rhythm section) and being as this is Steve Albini and Bob Weston after all, an immaculate sounding recording.
There are two recurring lyrical themes on Dude Incredible; the first of these is the theme of the pack mentality. The title track tells of how a roaming group of monkeys goes about their business, with Albini taking the role as the leader of the pack and imploring “Oh my brothers / And oh my other comrades / Let’s leave this place directly / And go where the females congregate.” All the while Weston and Trainer help zigzag the song through three different time changes. Two songs later a different type of mob rule is explored in “Riding Bikes.” Here Albini tells the story of a group of kids riding bicycles that are “stealing things and braking things” and it’s as if “Riding Bikes” is code for the anarchy that ensues when the troublemakers go looking for some. As they are noted Slint fans, “Riding Bikes” sounds like something the Kentucky-bred band could have jammed out to in their basement. Weston moves the track along with his bass-line while Albini builds the tension with the palm muted picking and Trainer expertly weaves in his constant kick drum and rat-a-tat-tat fills. Weston and Albini add screams that are from the microphone and it’s as if they inhabit the roles of the bike riders.
Dude Incredible’s other recurring theme, is that of surveyors. I guess if Big Black can have their Songs About Fucking why can’t Shellac have its songs about surveyors? The first of three songs with “surveyor” in the title is “All The Surveyors” and it opens with, of all things, the threesome acting as a barbershop quartet harmonizing “Who walks a King’s road? / Who fears a King / Fuck the King!” What follows is an almost stream of conscious performance from Albini that finds him “caw”ing like a bird and railing on about how “the cameras in orbit will survey the lines on the Earth that will show where the corn is and the crater that we made with you times son-of-a-bitch squared.” The second song in the surveyor trilogy is simple entitled “Surveyor” and on it Weston takes the lead vocal and speak/sings the account of how the founding fathers settled the frontier, even going as far as spouting measurements and the tools used in the process. A metallic riff cuts through the history lesson, creating the mental image of a professor wielding a Flying V six string.
“Compliant” is a start/stop nasty groove of a song that has Weston running down a mental checklist of things that a person afflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has to do in order to get through a day.
Just as he did on Big Black’s “Jordan Minnesota”, Albini lets rip on an unsuspecting town for a three chord meltdown; this time it’s poor “Gary” Indiana. “Gary, I hope that you’re proud of the smoke and the stink and the crowd” is just a taste of Albini’s distaste as Weston rolls his bass over the shredded steel coming off of the singer’s Travis Bean guitar.
If you ever wanted to hear what a Shellac impression of ZZ Top would sound like, then I suggest you take a listen to the “The People’s Microphone.” The instrumental is quite a radical departure for the group as it has Trainer working both his sticks on the hi-hat while Albini and Weston work in unison on the riff giving it a, how should I say? Post-punk boogie?
Shellac doesn’t need to release albums, they want to! Shellac doesn’t tour when the record label tells them to, they tour when they have the time and the inclination! Hell, Touch and Go Records isn’t even releasing new albums anymore, but that hasn’t stopped them from finding a way to get a new Shellac record to the people. I am convinced that Shellac will never release any music that is substandard, for the simple reason that they don’t have to, and for the less simple reason of their exacting formula. Albini, Weston and Trainer are not, and never have been, slaves to the whims and fancies of the fickle music industry, and maybe in this era of a collapsed and shattered record business that doesn’t seem quite as significant, but long before the current reality took hold, record labels were throwing around dollars like drunken sailors and musicians were fast and loose with their morals. Long story short: Shellac has released another excellent record. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
- Johnny Hooper