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Review: Shellac at Radio Radio

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Shellac's Bob Weston. - PHOTO BY JEFFREY BOND

Shellac, Helen Money
Sept. 27, Radio Radio
Five stars

Honestly, my introduction to Steve Albini’s infamous post-hardcore band Shellac came at approximately 10 p.m. on Monday night when the trio took the stage at Radio Radio. Seeing a band for the first time, with absolutely no expectations and no prior frame of reference, can be an exciting experience. But if I’d had any expectations, Shellac would’ve exceeded them.

Albini is somewhat of a legendary character on the music scene. A former member of underground punk bands Big Black and Rapeman, Albini has worked as a producer and sound engineer since the mid-80s. He's encountered a staggering catalogue of bands and musicians during the past 25-or-so years, most notably Nirvana, and has — by his own estimate — had a hand in producing or engineering nearly 2,000 rock albums.

He and his band also happen to be incredible performers. Walking on stage, Albini and his bassist Bob Weston stood, backs to the crowd, at a pair of 60s-looking “computer” sound mixers for a few pregnant moments, before turning simultaneously to their microphones to open up with the song “Canada,” from their 1998 album Terraform. They moved onto “My Black Ass,” from their 1994 album At Action Park, with Albini jerking and quaking as he played the guitar, as though being electrocuted by every chopping strum. Oddly enough, that’s what it felt like to be in the audience; it felt like being zapped with an electric current, over and over, by Albini’s relentless, middle-finger-in-the-air kind of wit, by the band’s sharp, angular riffs, and by the sheer noise Shellac was able to generate with their aluminum guitars.

Steve Albini. - PHOTO BY JEFFREY BOND

Next Albini paused and took a moment to explain the mysteries of sex as though he were a squirming parent trying to talk to an overly-curious seven-year-old child (“Sometimes…when two people love each other very much…”), before breaking into the song “You Came in Me” (“What did you think I’z gonna do?/That’s why I’m [expletive deleted]-ing you!”).

One of the undoubted highlights of the show was Albini’s question-and-answer period in which he answered questions such as “What are your favorite Brick Layer Cake [drummer Todd Trainer’s solo project] songs?” “Stars” or “Call It a Day”. “What are your favorite rocks and minerals?” “I don’t know, we’re not really mineral guys.” Albini then turned to an audience member at the front of the stage and asked him to “blow it up” with a fist pound. “You know how I knew that was gonna be douchey?” he asked the audience member. “Cause you have your hat turned backwards.” But far from being sinister or nasty, Albini’s antics were clearly all in good fun. One recognizes Albini is a highly intelligent musician who takes his music seriously while remembering not to take himself too seriously.

The distinction is key, and made for a really fun show. Things got perhaps a little too fun when, during the next song, a fight broke out between two rather large dudes and cleared a swath from the front of the stage all the way back to the table seats at Radio Radio in a matter of seconds before being broken up. Albini and Co. didn’t seem to miss a beat, following with a track from their most recent album Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007) called “Steady As She Goes.”

Todd Trainer. - PHOTO BY JEFFREY BOND

Another highlight of the show was Albini’s 15-minute rendition of the bizarre, thumping, impressionistic spoken-word song “The End of Radio,” also from their 2007 album. During this extended, plodding bass- and snare-punctuated jag, drummer Todd Trainer carried the snare drum aloft like a sacred talisman, playing with one stick most of the time as he loomed all over the stage, slinking interpretively to Albini’s lyrics. The song is a highly modernist piece about the death of radio, including all sorts of meaningless, hackneyed radio expressions that recall alienation and isolation of a technological age (“Can you hear me now?/Is it really broadcasting if there’s no one there to receive?”).

Chicago- and L.A.-based cellist Helen Money opened up for Shellac. Trapping her electric cello riffs on a synth and looping them back, Money created jolting and industrial soundscapes which she referred to as “songs” but almost cannot be classified as such for they obeyed none of the constructs of that form. Evocative and sometimes unnerving, one audience member referred to her as a sort of “cello Hendrix,” for the depth and emotional content of her solo explorations.

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