-- Steve Albini in "The End of Radio"
With the above quote kicking off the hardcore dirge that leads Shellac's first record in years, how can we not respond? Let's start by noting: point well taken!
Many fans have heard Steve Albini's legendary attacks on the CD, best summed up by the title of Big Black's foray into the format, The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape. It punished CD buyers, sounding nothing like the vinyl (forget live!). In Shellac, Albini's lightened up -- their catalog's available on CD. But "Excellent Italian Greyhound" throws down the gauntlet with a digital version that goes beyond the vinyl, with a 24-bit WAV edition at Touch and Go label's Web site. But this excellence comes with a price. Hearing all 24 bits is a challenge in itself, since some computer players are geared toward lower-quality formats. For reference, CD quality is just 16 bits and MP3/AAC files are even lower quality (regardless of bit depth).
Touch and Go's done a great job making the purchase as painless as possible. It's quite simple, similar to other online purchases. Once your transaction's complete, you're presented with two options: a link to snag your files immediately or a link to a place where your downloads live on the Touch and Go site.
One gripe: No one explicitly warns you how huge these files are!
Since Web sites you visit are aware of your browser and a fair idea of your connection speed, this isn't unknowable. It's worth considering, at least in the cases it matters (dial-up and AOL users). Fortunately the server's pretty snappy and even on a relatively slow connection it fed smoothly, if not screaming-fast. While it took the better part of an hour to download all nine songs, there were no problems. For the impatient, the 256K versions would have been done in under 10 minutes, so near-instant gratification remains possible.
Of course, the music is what matters, and in its 24-bit glory, this record delivers. While I'm not a big vinyl fan (in fact I generally say, "Good riddance!"), Shellac's stuff almost always sounded better on the wax. Those days are gone. Excellent Italian Greyhound is an excellent recording and this version puts you in the mix! Whether this is good or bad depends on one's take on the band. Shellac is always scary and disorienting. If that's your thing, you'll love this record.
The first thing you'll note (and whine about) with Shellac's 24-bit version is that it isn't as loud as CDs and ripped MP3s. While this might seem counter-intuitive for seriously noisy, scary music, it is in fact ideal. The simple truth: There is no loud without soft. If every breath, note and strum is equally loud (as with most Pop CDs released since 2000), there are no dynamics or impact. You rob the band of the ability to shock and awe, in exchange for a droning, screeching throb. Most records start life with a fairly wide dynamic range that gets crushed in the quest for ever-louder levels. Albini has long recognized this reality, but while Big Black CDs seemed to penalize the listener for the trend, Shellac records tend to reward listeners willing to get off the couch and crank up the volume on the stereo.
This record's even more risky. The best sounding, most convenient and cheapest versions are only available on the Internet. It plays with singer/guitarist Albini's studio-wizard reputation, validating and challenging it. "The End of Radio" drops spoofs on recording as much as radio, lyrics referencing the rituals of both. Throughout the album, there's a lot of talking and extraneous noise. "Genuine Lullabelle" is largely offensive end to end. It's not for the faint of heart. Albini's famed clubhouse, Electrical Audio, rings with Todd Trainer's continuously exploding drums -- you haven't heard drums like this since the likes of Moon and Bonham. Shellac's rhythmic playfulness is apparent -- timing is ever-changing but always locked-in on tracks like "Elephant" and "Paco." But the album is balanced with more familiar structures propelled by simple beats in slightly odd timings, as with "Be Prepared" or "Spoke."
Sequencing is old school and well paced (the files tack gaps to the ends of songs). It feels more like a concert as it goes on, the band tightening up and locking in a little more with each successive song. You feel all 24 bits, the grind of Bob Weston's bass smashes down like the gravity of Jupiter, razor-blade guitars cut you up as lyrics assault you start to finish. After a sweet Pop chord and harmony, the final track, "Spoke," drops one of the most terrifying rants ever committed to tape or bits. The band whips into a screaming frenzy as the media struggles to contain the message. By the end, our shredded ears savor the long, slow fade down to a welcome silence.
For better and worse, it's my favorite Punk record of the 21st century so far. Better yet, it's a digital product that does justice to a great band's sound. Thanks Shellac and Touch and Go!
Look for a special DistroRev interview with Bob Weston at blogs.citybeat.com/spill_it.