Shellac – Dude Incredible (Touch and Go)
Despite Shellac’s infrequent shows and albums (Dude Incredible is only their fifth album in 20 years), I was lulled into taking them for granted for a while. Since first seeing them live in 1993 at the Lounge Ax, where they set up on the floor rather than the stage, and buying their first three singles with hand-painted art, I’ve been a fan. Steve Albini’s willingness to take those in the music industry to task for various crimes and misdemeanors generated split opinions about his music, leading some to misjudge his bands. Sure, there was always a molten core of punk rage to his work, but to see them live usually meant a lot of jokes. The trio exuded the good-natured aura of musicians enjoying what they do without the pressure of trying to win over a larger audience, impress industry execs or feed their families with long tours. They have their day jobs, and when they can, they do what they love best, making music with friends. While At Action Park (1994) is a complete classic which measures up to the finest work of the bands Albini admired the most at the time, The Jesus Lizard and Fugazi, Terraform (1998), 1000 Hurts (2000) and Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007) were solid, interesting albums, but felt somewhat lacking in urgency to my ears.
Hearing most of the new songs live this past July (in a venue next door to the space I had first seen them 21 years ago), I got excited real quick. They were exciting, dynamic, tight compositions, some of the best I’ve heard in a long time. No more 8 to 12 minute plod fests like “The End of Radio,” “Genuine Lullabelle” and “Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You…” Dude Incredible kicks off with its title track, with one of their most propulsive, swaggering riffs ever. “Compliant” is a slow, stalking number that recalls The Jesus Lizard at their most menacing. “You Came In Me” is a mostly instrumental rollick with a brief, hilarious spoken sex joke interlude. “Riding Bikes” could totally have been the mental soundtrack of kids with their tricked out rides, getting up to no good with reckless abandon. A few of the songs, all with “surveyor(s)” in the title seem to have a connected theme about the founding fathers mapping out the country. An unabashedly quirky, geeky idea that totally works, reminding me of Thomas Pynchon’s massive book Mason & Dixon (1997), about the partnership between astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon during the birth of the American Republic. If you think 7 years is a long time, Pynchon took 22 years to complete that book.
The band sounds perfect, achieving Todd Trainer’s best recorded drum sounds so far. Bob Weston’s bass is bristly and nasty as ever, and Albini’s bag of boss guitar sounds are both comfortingly familiar and full of surprises, ranging from deconstructed Presence-era Jimmy Page to strangled farts like at the end of “The People’s Microphone.” This is definitely the result of years of unhurried craft and live road tests. Always a reliably powerful live act, it’s no surprise I can usually spot a handful of metalheads at their shows who can appreciate their intensity and understated virtuosity.
It’s a bit of a dilemma, because for the first time in 20 years, I’m left hungering for more. Perhaps if we’re good Shellac fans, we could be rewarded with a compilation of those brilliant early singles, along with rarities like The Futurist EP and Peel Sessions. Pretty please? | Buy