The long wait finally came to an end this summer. Shellac released another album, and only 7 years after their last. Putting a gap like that between albums is a risky thing for any band, well, any band that is trying to make a living through record sales and touring. For Shellac this is just protocol.
I only recently came to know Shellac, and instantly become one of their maniacal fans, I don’t think there is such a thing as someone that “casually” listens to them, either you are completely obsessed or you detest them with every fiber of your being. Perhaps grinding, sarcastic, sneering, harsh, abrasive, offensive dissonant math rock is not your thing. I didn’t know it was my thing until I couldn’t stop listening to “1,000 Hurts” for about a month and Shellac shot straight to no.4 on my last.fm charts within a week of me first hearing them. I fell in love with Steve Albini’s guitar tone. The Travis Bean aluminum necked guitar sound, apparently augmented by way of metal picks with divots cut into them. It’s funny, Steve’s guitar sound matches his personality: begging to be heard. Even if you don’t like what he has to say the sound will grind its way into your soul.
Naturally after such a long wait there is going to be certain expectations. One would expect a greater album, faster, more powerful, just more in general. This album delivers on many of those expectations through tracks like “Steady as She Goes” and “Spoke” the latter being a mushmouthed scream-fest between Albini and bassist Bob Weston. On some fronts though the songs seem forced and lose their drive, “Genuine Lullabelle” for instance.
The choice of opening track is understandable, from a lyrical standpoint. “The End of Radio” features Albini spouting off while Todd Trainer pummels the snare drum into submission. The song eventually takes off, but not fast enough for me. This song works on the first listen but honestly it doesn’t hold up and gets the work off to a slow start. The whole thing doesn’t actually “start” until “Steady as she Goes”.
“Steady as She Goes” is Shellac doing what Shellac does best, which means they click into their very precise and tightly played groove and crank out a fast-paced, form shattering number. There are some interesting contrasts on this album though, for example probably the most melodic and catchy line that they have ever presented, “Kittypants” appears after the long and boring “Genuine Lullabelle” a song that goes nowhere fast, though the Strongbad appearance is a great addition. Another interesting aspect of that song in particular is the extended use of silence. I’m not trying to be a smart ass, that is a very daring move, first of all to have Albini all alone out there singing and then putting in 10 seconds of silence between phrases, that is something I have never heard anyone try before.
It is good to hear Shellac trying new things, but they are most enjoyable when they stick to doing what they normally do. Face it, they don’t care if you buy their album, they don’t care if you go to their shows, they don’t care about reviews (neither do their fans) so it makes sense that they put out this album which does not work as well as a whole unit as “Terraform” or “At Action Park” do.
To me this is Shellac’s most uneven album and I think the thing that pushes it over the edge is the use of 2 extended tracks where not much happens. “Didn’t we Deserve a Look at You the Way you Really Were” almost kills Terraform, almost….they pushed it too far this time.
Don’t get me wrong, when they are on they are on and the things that they do within a 3-piece ensemble is pretty amazing. They always manage to find new ways to combine instruments or new ways to turn a song into a meter-stretching progged out jam session. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that they record most of their tracks live, and they are the tightest band you will ever hear, yet another daring thing.
All in all this is a fine album, but it is not going to be enough to hold me over until 2015 when their next album will most likely come out. They took a lot of chances on this one, something they didn’t really do on 1,000 Hurts. There is more to an album than just the music, certain expectations are developed within certain circumstances. Waiting this long for an album this “ok” is anything but ok. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what they do, because all of us fanatical Shellac followers will rush to the record store to buy whatever it is that they put out as if there were only 100 albums pressed.
Although this album is their first misstep, in my opinion I am still extremely excited to be able to see them twice, in the same day, in December. If they do their trademarked “Q & A” session in the middle of the show perhaps I will ask them “Why?”