Album: Excellent Italian Greyhound
Label: Touch and Go
Review date: Jun. 25, 2007
In 2007, Steve Albini cannot shout "this microphone turns sound into electricity!" without a long backlog of contingent ironies. He may well do it in the guise of, say, the last radio DJ on earth, with a cadence somewhere between naive disbelief and millenarian desperation, but we already know too much about him — his lifelong devotion to reverb, his affinity for aluminum guitars and copper plectra, his prickliness regarding the producer-engineer distinction, perhaps even the name of his recording studio — to put much trust in any other narrator he can throw at us.
Surely he knows this better than anyone, though, and this is in large part how Shellac's fourth album (fifth if you count The Futurist) works. That's works in the sense of "functions," but also in the sense of "expends effort": it's a given that Excellent Italian Greyhound is a masterful offering of jagged minimalist rock from a seasoned and almost ridiculously venerable band, but its mastery is expressed in exclusively expected ways. Albini and Bob Weston still intersect and spar in bursts of crisp, metallic near-melody; Todd Trainer's frenetic precision still keeps time from on high, like the sibilant rumblings of an exceedingly vengeful god. It's been seven years since the darkly funny and magnificently callous 1000 Hurts — and a few slim, self-aware cynicisms now, like a deadpan "I've got... fifty thousand watts of power," are about the only way you can tell. Shellac's music and Shellac's mythology have had a lot of time to diverge, and there are places here where the readymade décalage between the two feels like it's there to distract from a lack of evolution in both.
Maybe this is no worse than laurel-sitting, and merited laurel-sitting at that, but Excellent Italian Greyhound's two standouts are its twin low points: the aforementioned opener "The End of Radio" — 80% tedious wank, 20% terrific — and the experimental snooze "Genuine Lulabelle." These are not coincidentally the record's long songs (8:27 and 9:17, respectively), and the length in both cases is flagrantly unearned. But it's not that that's objectionable so much as the way both feel measured in terms of what the band can get away with, of how much dead air and coarse language the unsuspecting listener will tolerate — and in 2007, do unsuspecting Shellac listeners still exist? (Didn't the first track on Terraform teach us all?) They also sound like the work of a band growing bored with its playbook of transgressions; Albini's intelligent crassness, that quiet-until-provoked persona he's cultivated on and off record, is almost contemptuously dull on "Lulabelle" (that said, his delivery of "Close the lights... pour the wine... lose the pants," is pretty impeccable).
Anyway, the rest of the record is happily free of such jaded anti-posturing posturing (or whatever you want to call it) and fares much better. "Elephant" explores Fugazi's gentler angularities, and Albini's offhand yelps in "Be Prepared" ("I was born already bald! I was born wearing spats and a dickey!") complement the song's lurching rollick wonderfully. A raw, unrefined side pokes through some of the shorter songs, without compromising their trademark brillo-clean sound: live favorite "Steady As She Goes" and two-minute closer "Spoke" are both consummate Shellac numbers but also inventively crude, closer to Bleach than to In Utero. And what unifies them all, otherwise about as disparate as Shellac songs get, is their respectable, respectful concision; "Spoke" or the loping instrumental "Kittypants" may sound tossed-off by comparison, but at least they feel earnest. Compared to the boring leviathans that take up almost half the album's running time, that's an important compensation.
Whether it's enough of one is a question of scale. As an album, Greyhound is demanding, uneven and brittle; as a step forward in Shellac's larger-than-life symbolism, it's a letdown. But as a collection of songs, and as a primer of both the virtues and frustrations of a band so intent on being uncompromising, it's as exemplary as anything else. Take it as the latter, and resign yourself to the popular consensus that your opinion doesn't matter anyway.
By Daniel Levin Becker