Alt-rock’s own Professor Yaffle brings his hobby band The Shellacs to town and gives a comprehensive demonstration of how it is done.
Steve Albini is wearing a T-shirt with a charming, folksy illustration of a squirrel on it. He is screaming about riding bikes. Or surveyors, or something, I’ll come back to that. As no doubt mentioned previously The Asylum is a pretty weird venue, devoutly old-school ‘rock’ in style, a bare bones warehouse in a no-man’s land at the jewellery quarter’s edge grim enough to scare the living shit out of those Supersonic visitors who moan about Digbeth being bleak. The corrugated ceiling is draped in Jagermeister and Jack Daniels flags, they make the staff dress in blood spattered white coats as vaguely ‘sexy’ psychiatric nurses and sell lewdly named frozen cocktails from repurposed slush puppie machines. It seems an odd venue to see Albini deliver his learned treatise on the meticulous workings of rock music. On the other hand, a band as long in the tooth as Shellac have played plenty of similar places in their time and we should, in fact, be grateful for a decent sized live venue that’s not a soulless corporate money machine sponsored by Carling or O2. Long may it’s dubious charms persist. I thought we arrived pretty early but Iona Fortune is already on stage and slightly spooky, icy bell sounds float over the crowd. There’s just the vaguest hint of The Exorcist/Tubular Bells to it. Is that her real name? Sat at a stand with an electric organ and something that appears to be a theremin but which she either doesn’t play or isn’t she sends out bone shaking waves of bass beneath that twinkling high end. It’s great, the sounds across the top seem to be downtuned and distorted samples of a harpsicord or dulcimer or similar. It’s calming but absorbing music. She does not ruin it by singing. She has waist length hair cut in a Betty Page fringe and what looks to be a black leather skirt – I’m getting a “Wednesday, building on what Lurch taught her but trying to leave all that behind me now” vibe but I’m sure it’s incidental, there’s nothing camp about it and it’d be lazy and unfair to pin her as a spooky goth. It turns out she’s from Glasgow, her record came out on Optimo and is the first of an eight album run based on the I Ching. Which makes it sound imposingly dour and worthy. It’s not though. Have a listen.
Shellac come on and do their thing. They are incredible at their thing that they do, not unique perhaps but certainly singular. Their minimalist rock strips everything right back until there are just three sparse parts to their sound, each one a joy to listen to, recombined in an inventive variety of ways. Shellac is a hermetic system, an often contradictory and confounding set of elegantly expressed elements. Live it can be an exhilarating and simultaneously frustrating experience. So it goes. If you’ve ever seen Shellac then you know what they were like, the outline is set, the specifics shift but the final result is consistent. They play their songs, the light show is static, Bob takes questions and wears orange trousers, they pretend to be planes and they take Todd’s drums away while he tries to keep playing at the end of the set. As much as this is a deconstruction of rock show cliché it’s also a showbiz sleight of hand that switches one card for another while our attention is diverted. Despite the audience questions, the improvisation and the changing setlists you’d be hard pressed to imagine ever being surprised at a Shellac gig wouldn’t you? ‘Steady As She Goes’, ‘Wingwalker’ and ‘Copper’ are all highlights. Is it just me that finds ‘Copper’s final pay off “you’ll never be gold” oddly moving? There are two or three new songs which will eventually end up in some form on the next album. Shellac have been together 25 years, it’s ten since ‘Excellent Italian Greyhound’ in which time they’ve managed just one other album featuring more songs about surveyors than you’ll ever need. The pace of their output is glacial and whether that’s the cause or consequence of their refinement and mastery of their material has become a zen riddle at this point. Two songs in and Todd, looking thinner than ever, has broken his bass pedal. The first round of questions are disappointing. Someone asks why they don’t have the cool amps they tour with in the states. Bob assures them that they sound the same as what’s on stage. I mention this in passing because only one of us has seen Shellac play with those amps, the other one is a desperate fanboy and I’m a bad person. Steve Albini is hiding behind the speaker stack or screaming about being a plane. He is wearing a T-shirt with a squirrel on it. You know, I don’t actually remember if they did ‘Squirrel Song’ or not.