As Shellac took the stage of the Bell House on Monday to wrap up the Gowanus venue’s series of 10th anniversary shows, a hush fell on the audience. Or rather, a shush. There were calls of “Quiet!” and “Shh!” as the band silently tuned up.
It was a silly moment, but it might be that kind of (mock) reverence that keeps Shellac coming back to Bell House while touring at its self-described “relaxed and sporadic” pace. “It’s an incredible breath of fresh air for bands who are used to coming to New York and playing in the back room of a laundromat or whatever,” explained Steve Albini, the band’s frontman (or, technically, its stage-right-man) and legendary engineer of records by Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, and countless others. “Honestly, there’s a thing about New York: It must be fucking amazing here. Because everybody I know here lives in a fucking crate.”
Obviously, New Yorkers weren’t going to walk away without taking some abuse from the notoriously opinionated Chicagoan. The teasing continued later in the show, when Albini thanked the NYC-based opening band, E, for not adhering to the stereotype: “If you travel a lot,” he observed, “You get used to bands from New York having a certain very specific personality where they’re, like, pointedly eccentric, you know? Like, a bunch of fucking dudes in trench coats and Tom Waits hats or whatever.”
To be fair, Albini has also taken his share of mockery. When I texted a friend to let her know I was seeing Shellac that night, she asked, “Does Steve Albini still do a food blog?” (I don’t know, but he did just do a Grub Street Diet in which he declared, “All root beer is delicious.”) But with their lockstep, weaponized rhythm section, Shellac is truly one of the best live bands out there. And they know it.
“It’s pretty good, right?’ bassist Bob Weston asked the crowd after playing a new song. “We’re still good!”
The song, “The Girl From Outside,” was off of their forthcoming album, I Can’t Believe There’s a Fucking Beach in Aberdeen. (Unless Weston was joking about that title. The new album will be out “anytime between now and the future.”) It was a plodding number about karaoke. Albini explained: “Karaoke was real big a few years ago. Not so big anymore, right? So if you go to a karaoke place right now, the people that are into it are fucking hardcore… I strongly encourage you to go to a karaoke place, but don’t go to a popular one. Go to a shithole karaoke place. The regulars at a shithole karaoke place will make you fucking cry.”
A few songs later, it was time for the Shellac version of karaoke: the Q&A session. This particular one went off the rails when an audience member asked Weston if he would have sex with a young Chuck Berry. “Todd would pee on him,” Weston responded, causing drummer Todd Trainer to rise from his usual perch at the front-center of the stage, take the mic, and say, “Chuck is cool and I’m fucking cool, we’d be cool… it’d be a good story for both of us.” After Trainer went on to say he’d like to be in a (musical) threesome with Berry and Keith Richards, Albini deadpanned to the mostly male audience, “We like to joke about the sexual predators because we’re dudes and we have nothing to fear.”
Trainer’s riff was particularly rich because it came after “Prayer,” a sort of murder ballad in which the narrator asks god to kill his onetime lover and a man who is presumably her new flame. Albini has said the song, which maniacally repeats instructions to “kill him” a few dozen times, “examines the different facets of impotent male rage” and aims to “exorcise this kind of thinking,” but he has also said, in discussing certain covers of the song, that he feels “slightly bad that there is an earnest interpretation of that song that I can’t get behind.”
During Monday’s performance, he made clear he didn’t condone the homicidal lyrics by turning the narrator into someone who was begging his roommate to do the deed. “I just feel like I’ve earned a tiny little bit of cooperation; I mean, I’ve been a pretty good roommate all these years,” the scorned lover whined to the would-be hit man. “I always have my share of the utilities, and I don’t eat your food out of the fridge.”
Maybe Albini was tweaking New York crate-dwellers a little bit here, as well? I don’t know.
As for the rest of the set, the show kicked off with two songs from Terraform (“Canada,” “Copper”) and one from 1000 Hurts (“Squirrel Song”), continued with a punky new song (the title I heard Weston give was “Chick New Wave”), and from there it was mostly songs from 2014’s Dude Incredible (“Compliant,” “Riding Bikes,” “All the Surveyors,” “You Came in Me,” “Dude Incredible”), with the exception of a couple of songs from Excellent Italian Greyhound (“Steady As She Goes,” “The End of Radio”) and a couple of one-offs (“Billiard Player Song,” “Killers,” and “Scrappers,” which Albini said was about a child who wants her father to quit his job so they can go around picking up scrap metal together). Nothing from the band’s debut LP, At Action Park.
That album came out in 1994, and the CD packaging was crazy cool. Of course, CDs aren’t really a thing anymore, but Shellac has kept up with the times. “Thank you for coming to our podcast,” Albini riffed as “The End of Radio” closed the show. “Please click Like and Subscribe. Join us on Patreon where I want you to pay me a stipend just so I can live my fucking life. In exchange I’ll show you progress pictures of the little outfits I make for my pets.”
Yup, they’re still good.