Geek Obsession: The music of Steve Albini
Why It’s Daunting: For over 25 years, musician and recording engineer Steve Albini has been one of the most divisive figures in the world of rock music. He’s worked with tons of small bands as well as some of the biggest names in alt-rock (including the Pixies and Nirvana), and musicians flock to his famed Electrical Audio studio in Chicago to record; he’s also developed a reputation as one of rock’s biggest cranks. Always as opinionated as they are insightful, Albini’s uncompromising public pronouncements—coming in the form of interviews, magazine articles, and blog posts—have made him enemies across the board, from fans who call him a hypocrite to former protégés who have run afoul of his exacting standards. Given his savage reputation, it’s easy to forget that Albini is himself a professional musician, and an incredibly influential one at that. Starting in 1982 with Big Black and continuing to the present day with Shellac, Albini has put out a body of work that, like his personality, is abrasive, irascible and often offensive, but never less than compelling. But with nearly 20 full-length albums and EPs with his various bands, and his often difficult and confrontational attitude, it can be hard to know where to start.
Possible Gateway: Big Black’s 1987 finale, Songs About Fucking.
Why: For one thing, it’s the album that Albini himself—always his own harshest critic—once cited as the best work he’d ever done. But why take his word for it, especially since he specialized in saying things that piss people off? Just one listen to Songs About Fucking shows why it’s the perfect entry point to the musical and lyrical world of Steve Albini. Recorded at the best and the worst of times for the band—best because Big Black were at the pinnacle of their songwriting and recording prowess, and worst because tensions were high and they knew they were about to break up following terrific guitarist Santiago Durango’s acceptance to law school—Songs About Fucking became the band’s final statement, an extended, hostile middle finger directed at anyone who couldn’t get into their specific dark, brutal headspace.
Lyrically, the album deals with typically twisted Albini obsessions: “Fish Fry” is about a brutal murder, “Colombian Necktie” refers to a particular gory form of mob execution, and the fantastic “L Dopa” is a deranged celebration of the psychoactive chemical. But Albini has always been about more than simply wallowing in the grotesque, a trap too many punk and metal bands fall into; a few tracks on Songs About Fucking illustrate his more sophisticated, witty approach to his bleak subjects. “Bad Penny” embraces every hateful word anyone ever said about Albini and spits it back, as he describes himself as a toxic presence that cannot be gotten rid of, and delivers a hilarious spoken-word bridge: “I think I fucked your girlfriend once… maybe twice, I can’t remember. Then I fucked all your friends’ girlfriends. Now they hate you.” Likewise, “Precious Thing” is his response to those who were annoyed by his many screeds about the worthlessness of love songs; Albini describes his precious thing in the song as a figure of mutual abuse, contempt, and near-murderous hatred while calling her “a thing of speed and beauty.”
Albini’s music would improve—later Shellac albums find him with a complementary band capable of achieving almost unthinkable tightness—but there’s no Big Black record that soundsbetter. Durango and Albini’s dual guitar attack is in perfect sync; he’d finally perfected the use of the drum machine to make it sound as pummeling and vicious as the guitars (check out the ear-damaging beat on “Precious Thing”); and Dave Riley’s bass is a terrific anchor for the ringing, searing guitar sounds. Songs About Fucking is also a nice predictor of what would come later for Albini as an artist and an audio engineer; it’s the first record where he truly perfects the creepy vocal compression, heavy drum-mic sound, and sizzling guitar distortion that would become a hallmark of his sound, and the use of pornographic images from Japanese anime in the album art anticipates the controversy that met his next musical project.
Next Steps: That project was called Rapeman, and it’s a good next step for those who decide that the sound and the fury of Albini’s voice and guitar is more interesting than the public scandals he generates. Albini took a lot of heat for the name of this short-lived project, but he didn’t invent it; he simply borrowed it from the title of a particularly bizarre manga. With Rapeman, Albini worked with a live drummer for the first time—Rey Washam from Scratch acid—and Washam’s bandmate David Wm. Sims, the future Jesus Lizard stalwart on bass. Rapeman’s sole full-length album, Two Nuns And A Pack Mule—which, in its CD version, contains their only other major release, the Budd EP, in its entirety—is a fantastic progression from Songs About Fucking.
In what came as a shock to those who had gotten used to “Roland,” Big Black’s drum machine, Albini worked exceptionally well on his first full record with a live drummer, and the three-piece dynamic suited him. Stepping out of Durango’s shadow, Albini proved himself with Rapeman to be an exceptionally skillful guitarist, not only possessed of a distinctive sound attributable to his engineering skills, but technically proficient in a way few critics had bothered to notice prior to Two Nuns. The album also finds Albini uncharacteristically lightening up on a few songs, like the Sonic Youth goof “Kim Gordon’s Panties” and the rollicking ZZ Top cover “Just Got Paid.”
Where Not To Start: Keep moving forward with Steve Albini’s musical career. More than a few moments with his current band, Shellac, perfectly crystallize everything that make his music worthwhile and prove that with a sympathetic group of sidemen, he’s capable of greatness. Devastatingly cruel lyrics like 1000 Hurts’ “Prayer To God,” crushing Todd Trainer drums like on At Action Park’s “Dog And Pony Show,” and innumerable times when Albini’s metallic, strained guitar hangs in the air forever are the reasons why his music stays relevant into the 21st century. Avoid looking back at the early days of Big Black, before he’d mastered his craft and his lyrics tended to be provocative in a juvenile way; the band’s first EP, Lungs, has some good songs but the recording quality is terrible and most of the playing is amateurish. The Headache EP is likewise hit-and-miss (and contains a surprisingly frank confession by the band of its quality in the liner notes), and in fact Big Black’s albums tend to be much stronger than their shorter releases.
Likewise, while Albini’s bands have a justifiable reputation as a phenomenal live experience, that doesn’t always show through in their live albums. The Big Black live document Pigpile is worth owning, but two more-or-less official bootlegs—Sound Of Impact and Tonight We Walked With Giants—are real disappointments, and the Shellac Live in Tokyo album fails to communicate to listeners how intense Albini & Company can be in concert.