Shellac- To All Trains

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Reviews | 0 comments

Shellac To All Trains

 

To All Trains starts with one guitar plucking out a warbling riff, a riff that will cycle back across the song. But it is quickly joined by the bass and drums, a formula that held Shellac throughout their career. Over thirty-odd years, guitarist and singer Steve Albini, bassist and singer Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer took the classic three-piece rock lineup and delivered punishing, jagged music breaking down structure, rhythm, and melody itself. And yet for all this deconstruction, Shellac nonetheless drove straight to the core of rock and roll.

 

This review is later than others; I wanted to listen to the album on its own terms, not in the immediate wake of the death of Albini—who passed away only ten days before the album’s release on May 17th—and was a man whose work in music I’ve always admired. And To All Trains deserves to be considered as an album made by three people, not just the most famous member, and held up against the impressive body of work that Shellac leaves behind. As an album—their first since 2014’s Dude Incredible—I think it does this admirably, just as vital and compelling as anything they’ve put out before. In a way Shellac built their songs as if they were on a construction site rather than in a carefully mic-ed up studio: the buzzsaw guitars, the chugging bass, the jackhammer drums. And if it’s true the composition can lend a cold quality to the songs, it’s equally true that the recording and their live-as-possible sound brings out the organic side.

 

As expected from the group, this record is a versatile mix of noise, math, rock and experimentation. Shellac have been known to throw a long song in the mix, but To All Trains only has two songs that top four minutes, and just barely at that. It’s all they need to make an impression. Lead track “Wsod” has pierced your eardrum and exited the other side before you even know it, but you remember it was there as “Girl from Outside” kicks into a dirge-like march.

 

The record really gets going on “Chick New Wave,” a mosh-worthy rocker filled with headbanging moments and throbbing drum fills. If Shellac were a singles band (they seem to have left that in the 90’s) this one would be the likely selection.

 

 

Other highlights include the mathy “Tattoos;” the punchy “Scrappers,” which pairs a straight up old-school rock riff with an aggressive rhythm section; and the bassy “How I Wrote How I Wrote Elastic Man (Cock & Bull)” which in an alternative universe could be considered almost bouncy.

 

 

It’s often the bass in the driver’s seat, with Weston pummeling the songs through to a finish while the guitar hooks around and provides textures and flourishes. Trainer is adept at rolling toms and gunshot snare, and holds everything together in a box lest it all burst apart. The production is, as expected, fucking flawless, recorded and produced by Albini and mastered by himself and Weston with all the skill and perfect mic placement one would expect of them. 

 

A joking sort of dread permeates the vocals, which is characteristic of the band. I’ll admit the lyrics are what I pay attention to least on Shellac records; I’m always hypnotized by the instrumentation. They aren’t a weak spot or an afterthought, they just don’t grab me the same way, and To All Trains is no different in this respect. However, it’s impossible to ignore the words on the noisy drudge-rocker “Wednesday,” as the climax is spoken over the end without music, a heavy tale of suicide. On the the polar opposite end of things, “Scabby the Rat” had me rolling on the floor with lines like

 

Scabby the Rat

Ooh, he’s inflatable

Scabby the Rat

That’s right, I said inflatable

Scabby the Rat

Makes the whole room pregnant

Scabby the Rat

Pow! you’re pregnant

 

Albini also takes the time here to shout out the late Chicago musician Rob Warmowski (The Defoliants, Buzzmuscle) who ran a pro-labor Twitter account named after the titular inflatable rat (who, if you didn’t know, often pops up at union strikes). 

 

 

The ten-track album closes out with “I Don’t Fear Hell,” a menacing, sneering knockout of a final track, with juddering stop-starts so you aren’t quite sure when it will be over. Albini’s final words on To All Trains are:

 

Something something something when this is over

I’ll leap in my grave like the arms of a lover

If there’s a heaven, I hope they’re having fun

Cause if there’s a hell, I’m gonna know everyone

 

 

It’s low-hanging fruit to ascribe this parting shot any more significance than a solid album closer; Albini’s death was sudden and unexpected. He reported suffering a cardiac incident in his 20’s, so it’s possible he had some thoughts of mortality rattling around in his brain. (The band even joked about it in interviews.) But he was also a famously snarky bastard, and the vibe of “I Don’t Fear Hell” is perfectly in place with the rest of the album. 

 

Overall, To All Trains is a seamless document, a piece of art from three musicians who know music, who work with it and feel it in their very bones, yet never suffer the temptation to over complicate things. If you like Shellac, you will love this record; if you’ve never heard them before and are curious after Albini’s passing, this isn’t a bad place to start.

 

To All Trains is out now on Touch and Go Records; buy it or stream it on Bandcamp and Spotify. Read The Wire‘s wide ranging interview/oral history with Shellac published shortly after Albini’s death here.

 

 

 

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