Shellac Excellent Italian Greyhound

[Touch and Go; 2007]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: “minimalist rock trio”
Others: Rapeman, Big Black, Mission of Burma, Brick Layer Cake

"THIS IS A REAL GOD DAMN EMERGENCY!!" shouts Steve Albini to close Excellent Italian Greyhound's opening track "The End of Radio." A warning that caps off sarcastic platitudes like "Can you hear me now?", "That drum roll means we've got a winner!", and "I'd like to thank our sponsors," the line's unnerving insistence is a reminder of Albini's simple, yet commanding language. Often ushered into dark corners with other furrowed musicians pumping their fists and directing anger toward a faceless opponent, Shellac are in fact purveyors of a strand of staunch politicism that's as funny as it is critical. The commentaries are biting and the sarcasm is snide, but save for the darker musical signifiers, their lyrical conviction is usually dressed in a garb of humor and playfulness.

For all the presumptions surrounding Albini's methodology (for one, his championing of analog recordings has little to do with "sound quality"), the pay-offs and follow-throughs have been consistent. Okay, so the instrumentals aren't as intense as "Pull the Cup" or "QRJ" and the vocal performances aren't quite as captivating as "Prayer to God" or "Watch Song," but Excellent Italian Greyhound -- Shellac's first album since 2000's 1000 Hurts -- is bloated with crisp audiophile versions of songs we've heard live for years. In addition to the aforementioned "The End of Radio," another standout track is another Shellac anomaly: "Genuine Lullabelle," a structurally circular track featuring a capella decadence crooned so sincerely you'd assume the line "She knows her way around the cock" is auto-biographical.

Shellac's commentaries usually extend beyond the realm of down 'n' dirty power relations and often highlight the banality of more humanist concerns, but on Excellent Italian Greyhound, there are two glaring exceptions: "Boycott" and "Elephant." Both written and sung by Bob Weston, the tracks offer flimsy lines like "a broken moral compass" and "repeat a lie that makes it true". With such trite political profferings furthered by mediocre tracks like "Steady As She Goes" and the surprisingly lighthearted "Kittypants," Greyhound lacks the raw immediacy of their first three albums -- they even sound a bit, well... dated. And this, mind you, is coming from a reviewer who considers art and politics inherently inseparable.

True, Shellac's success has never relied on sounding "of the time" -- in fact, it's their resistance to trends and shifts in musical taste that has garnered their dedicated fanbase -- but with such a specific musical language and internal logic, what the discerning are left to focus on are the little details. One relatively subtle detail is Albini's notably complex guitar playing. Instead of engaging with Weston's basslines and Todd Trainer's always outstanding drum chops (with no exception on Excellent Italian Greyhound), Albini's guitar skirts, flirts, and snakes around. It's still got some bite -- especially on "Be Prepared" -- but it doesn't gnaw at your ears the way it used to. Even "Paco"'s buildup, perhaps most resembling Shellac of yore, is only a weightless approximation of the similar buildup found on "Il Porno Star" from 1994's At Action Park.

It's at this point, however, when an empirical approach to Shellac is just too scientific, a "rational" approach that's irrational for the unquantifiable subject at hand. Perhaps Excellent Italian Greyhound isn't exactly the landmark album fans were waiting for, but the only fans who give a shit are the casual ones who looked at the rating above and moved on (thanks for sticking around, you). As much recording as Steve Albini and Bob Weston do -- 2007 is the 10th anniversary of Electrical Audio! -- Shellac's records always seemed subservient to their live show, so specific opinions of specific recorded songs are essentially immaterial to the larger Shellac narrative. And despite my minor bickerings and nitpickyness, I have a sense that Excellent Italian Greyhound is a grower. Besides, we're a dedicated bunch who would rather see them live anyway.

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