“Billiard Player Song” ferociously introduced Shellac to the world

“Billiard Player Song” ferociously introduced Shellac to the world

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. 

Twenty years ago this October, Shellac announced itself to the world with a three-song 7-inch on Touch And Go Records entitled The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History. Guitarist-vocalist Steve Albini had been an outspoken presence in independent music for more than a decade by that point, and Shellac wouldn’t stray from the abrasive, biting style of his shorter-lived previous bands, Big Black and Rapeman. But Albini would find a lasting home in Shellac, thanks to the chemistry he has with drummer Todd Trainer and bassist Bob Weston. The three of them together create a sound that is unmistakably their own, as unique as a fingerprint: Albini’s tinny, twisted guitar and everyman voice, Trainer’s thunderous drumming, and Weston’s huge-sounding bass, which locks in with Trainer for one of the best rhythm sections in rock.

It’s all there on the ferocious “Billiard Player Song,” which closes The Rude Gesture. Albini’s stuttering guitar opens before Trainer and Weston join, but shortly after everything kicks in, it all slows to a crawl, as Trainer punctuates and embellishes Albini’s and Weston’s breaks. The song lurches back and forth repeatedly as Albini describes another one of his damaged male protagonists. (Much of Shellac’s catalogue fits thematically under “the evil that men do.”) “He lied to her,” Albini barks at the end of the song. “He lied to her, with a perfectly straight face / She believed him.”

Twenty years later, “Billiard Player Song” qualifies as one of Shellac’s more straight-forward songs; it doesn’t quite have a verse-chorus structure, but it doesn’t veer into the repetitive minimalism (like “Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are” from 1998’s Terraform), bizarre conceptualism (like “New Number Order” from 2000’s 1,000 Hurts), or general esoterica that Shellac has gleefully explored over its subsequent albums. But “Billiard Player Song” remains a staple of live performances, and one of the finest songs in Shellac’s catalogue.