Shellac - Excellent Italian Greyhound
Excellent Italian Greyhound (Touch and Go, 2007)
Download: Shellac - "Be Prepared"
Download: Shellac - "Steady As She Goes"
Download: Shellac - "The End of Radio"
Lester Bangs, in his classic essay about The Stooges, pontificated about the Velvet Underground (as he was wont to do) by explaining that the Lou Reed-led band were an extension of the sonic experiments begun by groups such as The Yardbirds and The Who. Bangs wrote that the Velvet Underground’s music “might at first …seem merely primitive, unmusicianly and chaotic, (but that) at its best(had) sharply drawn subtleties and outer sonances cutting across stiff, simplistic beat(s…”
Later, Bangs uses an anecdote from another book to set up this description of the thumpin’ music that The Stooges made back in the day: “(the music) comes out of a primal illiterate chaos gradually taking shape as a uniquely personal style, emerging from a tradition of American music that runs from the primordial wooly rags of backwoods bands up to the magic promise eternally made and occasionally fulfilled by rock: that a band can start out bone-primitive…and evolve into a powerful and eloquent ensemble.”
Excellent Italian Greyhound, the first album from the Steve Albini fronted math rock pioneers Shellac in seven years, is the sound of the Bangs quotes intersecting and exchanging ideas on how to improve one another. The album starts off with a song that is eight-minutes of punk's sardonic confrontation, the Velvet's bitter guitar noise, and exploding, galloping, out-of-control drumming. “The End of Radio” is Albini’s tale of being the last man, and the last DJ, on earth. It starts off unassuming and quiet, with whispering vocals and a distant snare hit that has the disarming quality of a gunshot off in the distance; similar to the quiet before the storm. Sure enough, the song’s storm arrives with a sharp, trebly, monotone guitar and with Albini saying in a raspy voice, “Can you hear me now?”
Albini is, of course, being satirical, turning the ever-ubiquitous Verizon catchphrase into a desperate, howling cry for humanity in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Albini’s voice serve as reminder that Kurt Cobain and Frank Black both have roots with the legendary post-punk master.
“The End of Radio” is a perfect example of what Bangs described as music that is seemingly chaotic, unprofessional and noisy, but ultimately has many layers and many subtleties. Minor and major keys clash, and the band plays in polyrhythmic synchronicity, creating an intriguing dissonance; one of the main musical motifs recalls a score to a spaghetti western.
However, the song is eight-and-a-half minutes long. So I don’t exactly begrudge anyone for not listening to it in full – there’s a lot of repetition, but somehow, very little structure – in fact, “The End of Radio” is a song that I admire more than a song I actually enjoy, despite its Vonnegut-esque sense of humor regarding the end of humanity.
Still, in the context of the record, “The End of Radio” serves as a litmus test for the listener; meaning, if you can get through this headfuck of a song, then you’ll be rewarded with songs that are more accessible and conventional. It’s a trick that Albini performed with the last Shellac album, 1000 Hurts.
If “The End of Radio” serves as the epitome of the first Bangs quote, then the next few songs (“Steady As She Goes,” “Be Prepared” and “Elephant”) are the summation of the second. “Steady As She Goes” is raw as a flesh wound (and is a thousand times Stooges song than any of the Stooges songs that appeared on The Weirdness…this fact is made even stranger and confounding by the fact that Albini produced that sorry sack of shit of a comeback album), “Be Prepared” is a bluesy and raucous number, and the Fugazi-quoting “Elephant” contains woeful, politically charged lyrics, interweaving vocals and drums.
All of the songs are taut lead-ups to the next auditory experiment, “Genuine Lulabelle.” I don’t even know how to describe this song, other than mentioning that its nine minutes long, contains a cameo from Strongbad and the movie-trailer voice guy, and begins with Albini singing in a style of a choir boy and the breakdown is only vocals. Like “The End of Radio,” the song has some incredible merits, but not exactly a joy to sit through.
“Genuine Lulabelle” seems like it’s another litmus test for the listener, as the next few songs are the poppiest on the record (well, poppy in the context of Shellac). “Kittypants” sounds like Mogwai instrumental, “Boycott” emulates Bleach-era Nirvana (or rather, shows who Cobain and company were imitating with that record) and The Who but adds a disturbing minor-key arpeggio for spooky texture. “Paco” continues the minimalist and haunting post-rock vibe that permeates the album, and closer “Spoke” closes things on a bass-driven punk note, highly reminiscent of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” (there I go again with the Cobain thing).
Excellent Italian Greyhound is like hearing chaos taking form right before your very ears. As I was listening to it, I wondered what Bangs would have said about its boundary pushing tendencies and formless content. Though he may have not found it to be as groundbreaking as the Velvets were back in the day, I imagine that he still would have enjoyed its sardonic edge. Its that edge that keeps the more experimental tracks human, and makes the punk songs even more snarky. Though Excellent Italian Greyhound is out there, but there's always a minimalist heartbeat that keeps the album ground to reality.