We all know Shellac, right?
I wanted to talk about some of their songs. Okay, here we go.
1,000,000 and 1. "Wingwalker"
I can’t begin this list with anywhere but side B of the 1993 7” Uranus. After intently listening to this song seven or so times in a row, I concluded that it must be “I’m A Little Airplane” for adults.
I’ve decided that Jonathan Richman and Steve Albini are two sides of the earnest coin, said earnestness being something I’ve always appreciated about both. (I love when two totally disparate things I enjoy somehow collide [see also, The Who’s cover of “Heat Wave”], but this is one comparison I never thought I’d be making. For that I’ll always have “Wingwalker” to thank.)
THAT is not to be outdone, however, by the following video that “Wingwalker” ALSO immediately brings to mind:
“Wingwalker” fucking kills.
Here’s a song about a guy whose wife cheats on him with JFK. The lyrics are just brilliant, mean-spiritedness at its finest and most clever. This song rips from the very beginning, no intro needed. Trying to write about this song made me realize Shellac is propulsion, and here that is made literal as they blast that jerk-off JFK all the way up into space.
1 Billion, twenty-five, seventy-five thousand. “House Full of Garbage”
What I suppose I might call Shellac’s version of sludge noise, low end faithfully pulsing and crawling along, punctuated with a sharp note or two, and the tortured wind chime guitar of the song’s center. You feel the filth in the emotionlessly rendered lyrics too. Shit, you might even call this shit viciously viscous. The amelodic drums are the only way out, but even then, the release is not especially much of a relief.
1 Billion and eight, six, something. “Riding Bikes”
Now that it’s in my head, the Jonathan Richman/Steve Albini coin is staring at me once again in my choice from the freshly released Dude Incredible. (I know they’ve been playing a bunch of these songs, including this one, live for several years now, but don’t we deserve a chance to see and hear the Surveyor Suite, too?) This song really is about the activity of riding bikes, and furthermore, it’s about the child or adolescent mindset that is part and parcel with the whole experience. This is wholly reminiscent of Jonathan Richman songs like “Chewing Gum Wrapper” and "Ice Cream Man." “Riding Bikes” is far more unsettling, of course, especially in the rhythms that quietly assault you and the shouts that startle and wake you, and maybe even the guitar that slips around your throat and throttles you. But the spirit is pretty close, though, if you ask me, and I happen to think that’s a damn fine approach to a song, and moreover: honest.
0. “Prayer To God”
I think we can all agree that this is THE Shellac song. If you don’t care for this song, I’m pretty sure Bon Iver or one of those other bearded pussies will do you just nicely. This song is pain, unbelievably cathartic even if no one has hurt you so badly that you want them dead.
Another song from the Uranus 7”? In fact, the only other song on it? Is this thing REALLY that good that both tracks from it deserve to be on this admittedly rather arbitrary list?
Well, yes. For “Doris,” the following lyrics and their delivery especially do me in:
“Miracles happen when Doris sings.
Couples in love stop dead in their tracks.
Dishes clatter to the ground (unbroken).
Shellac songs sometimes remind me of short stories. This one tops that list.
22. “The End of Radio”
Shellac is really fucking good at opening an album, and “The End of Radio” might be their best. It’s amusingly fitting that a decidedly non-radio friendly band would produce such an accurate battering of the state of radio. They’re not saying anything we didn’t already know, but it’s the way they say it. With Shellac, it’s always the way they say it, and “The End of Radio” says it over and over again: THERE IS NO SPECIAL GIRL!
75. "Squirrel Song”
1000 Hurts is the best Shellac album, so the most songs of it have naturally appeared on this list. As good as Shellac is at opening an album, so too they are at opening a song, and this one fucking thunders in its opening line. You’ve never heard such aggressive music on such an innocuously absurd subject that absolutely refuses to come off as anything but perfectly and deliberately sincere. (It might have something to do with the subversion created by taking a normal little thing like a squirrel, combining it with the ever expanding human need for powering our bullshit lives, and multiplying by a thousand. But I think Steve Albini might call bullshit on that, I don’t know.) In the end, we will be lucky if ALL of us don’t bust out crying.
This song is a hell of a little pummeler. Copper will never be gold, but it doesn’t need to be. Gold is a marker of abstract and impractical value, whereas copper has a solid, honest job that suits it quite well. Besides the whole electrical conduction thing, there’s also the matter of Steve Albini’s copper picks (or plectrums, if you wanted to learn a new word today). Any way you dice it, "Copper" is the perfect homage to copper.
Tense as shit, this song is the poetry of raw nerves wrapped up in the galloping rhythm section that practically eviscerates you, tormented guitar, and exuberant chant-shouts. The lyrics tell a sadly savage story, probably about an abusive relationship although I can’t be totally sure. (I looked to see if they have anything definitive to say on the matter, like this Dude Incredible song-by-song, but I found naught.) Shellac plays/tells the menacing truth, and “Crow” is it, or at least one of them.
Shellac are masters of the build-up. Only sometimes is there a release. Often things just end, and that could be the most telling release of all.