/Tuesday Ten /556 /Bulldozer – Steve Albini songs

Last week, one of the bastions of Alternative Rock died. If you don’t know who Steve Albini was, you’ve certainly heard a song he was involved in. He was in bands since the early eighties, and recorded/produced/engineered hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of records (his Discogs page shows over 1,400 releases credited to him in one way or another).

/Tuesday Ten /556 /Bulldozer – Steve Albini

/Subject /Steve Albini
/Playlists /Spotify / /YouTube
/Related /Tuesday Ten/Index
/Details /Tracks this week/10 /Tracks on Spotify Playlist/6 /Duration/16:11

There is no doubt that he was an abrasive character, and certainly in his younger days he made a great number of questionable choices in his comments, band names, songs and views. But unusually, he took full responsibility for this in later years and genuinely changed and evolved to do better, to the point that he became an unlikely icon in doing so. Oh, and he was a top-tier poker player, too.

That said, he most likely took his utter hatred of The Smashing Pumpkins to his grave, as The Hard Times hilariously noted last week.

In terms of music, he had a particular style of recording – analogue, not digital – and mostly worked with bands with guitars (more on that later), and so was perhaps part of a dying breed of people keeping that flame going. But the legacy of what he did is quite something: having by chance being part of the birth of what became known as Alternative Rock (by working with the Pixies on their debut album), and then infamously working with Nirvana on In Utero, and along the way offering them sage, realistic advice. In addition, on principle he never took a share of earnings on an album he worked on, instead just charging a flat, daily rate for his work, making his skills available to vastly more bands – and likely why so many smaller, unlikely bands were able to get that precious credit on their recordings (and likely sounded better as a result).

While he wasn’t originally from there, he was indelibly associated with Chicago – and is probably another musical reason as to why I love that city so much. Needless to say, I never met him, but I passed his studio Electrical Audio on West Belmont Avenue on the Northside more than a few times, and there was a bit of a buzz walking down the street behind it and hearing drums being tracked – and I did wonder what album that might have been that was being recorded at the time.

A friend noted last week that for the most of us (i.e. my friends, my friends of friends and readers of this site), at least one album that Albini was involved in will be in our top ten albums ever. Mine is probably three or four.

Anyway: this week’s /Tuesday Ten is all about songs from albums or by artists that I love, that Albini was involved in. It could have been a whole lot more than ten, too, but time wasn’t on my side, and I have to stop somewhere. So Nirvana and the Pixies, not to mention Sunn O))), Failure, METZ and KEN Mode, are missing to start with.

A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.

Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook (details above).

/Big Black
/Bad Penny
/Songs About Fucking

Albini’s first band – active from 1981 until 1987 – was the caustic sound of Big Black. The sound of a rumbling, almost lo-fi drum machine, low-end bass and guitars that sounded more like twisting of metal than actual riffage. Lyrically they were no less brutal, taking on taboo subjects and terrible people, and frankly were all the better for it, as Albini chose to tackle head-on the terrible aspects of human nature. Best known for the small-town nihilism of Kerosene (a song I’ve featured twice in this series), but many others – including me – also love the relentless momentum of Bad Penny, where Albini takes on the character of a terrible, terrible man that fucks everyone and fucks everything up as a result.

/End of Harvest
/Times of Grace

There are a good number of bands that Albini spent years working with, and post-metal titans Neurosis worked with him over a twenty-year period – every full-length album from Times of Grace onward (with the exception of the collaboration with Jarboe) until their apparent disbandment in recent times. Times of Grace was the follow-up to the extraordinary Through Silver In Blood, and somehow it feels heavier, denser and even more oppressive. Noah Landis had by this point settled as their secret weapon on synths and samples (his work helps with the sheer density of the sound), and Albini seemed to have helped the band on their way to being one of the most important bands in metal, bringing out a edge to their sound that made them even more emotionally raw (there are a great many devastating moments in the Neurosis catalogue) and ever-more thrilling. This song – which builds to an astonishing, deafening climax – was one of the very last songs I ever saw Neurosis play.

/The Jesus Lizard
/Mouth Breather

This bunch of Texan nutcases relocated to Chicago in the late-80s, and were indelibly associated with Steve Albini (he recorded all their albums – and all the Jesus Lizard albums you need, frankly – on Touch + Go Records). Clearly, something just clicked between them, and Albini’s preference for a booming, heavy low-end suited them just fine. I’ve often no idea what the fuck David Yow is on about (and sometimes, like on Lady Shoes, I really, really didn’t want to fucking know), but the rampaging Mouth Breather (also down as one of the best insults in song) is actually about Albini. Well, Britt Walford from Slint, who fucked up in an epic way when house-sitting for Albini. The way Yow told it, it sounds like cartoon chaos, and the song is just as hilarious, with one of the best riffs a band recorded by Albini ever laid down.

/Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues
/Mclusky Do Dallas

Somehow, the spiritual successors to the chaotic sound of The Jesus Lizard came from the Welsh Valleys, and for much of their first active period in the early 2000s, also gravitated to recording at Electrical Audio with Albini. That band was mclusky, whose sardonic lead singer Andrew Falkous also had a great way with insults in song, onstage put-downs but – and this is probably for the best – kept his clothes on, unlike David Yow. That debt to Yow’s band becomes really rather obvious in the first 112 seconds of their best album by far (Mclusky Do Dallas), as Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues is absolutely unhinged. It’s stop-start, thundering hardcore punk, Falkous sounds like he’s losing his mind, and Albini’s production keeps it spinning out of control.

/PJ Harvey
/Rid of Me

PJ Harvey, it became clear later on, had absolutely no interest in repeating herself, and to this day, every album feels like a distinct stylistic jump from the last. For her second album – the final one with the original trio playing on it – she stayed in the US and recorded in deep in the mid-west with Steve Albini, and the results were astonishing. As she noted later, Albini’s recording technique mostly saw him putting microphones in odd places that picked up nuances no-one else considered, but the result here also was that Harvey suddenly was right in your ears in the mix – as was the rest of the band. Man-size – like a number of other songs on the album – sees Harvey taking on masculinity and having some fun taking the piss out of men who think they are “bigger and better”. What came next – the sultry, gothic blues of To Bring You My Love – would take her to a whole different world, but she never worked with Albini again.


Given Albini’s noted dislike of electronic music and his analogue recording techniques, it’s perhaps not surprising that most of his recordings were of bands with guitars. Which is perhaps why it’s so surprising that Whitehouse were regular collaborators with him across the nineties: but then, with the – surprisingly reasonable – flat rates that he charged for his recording services, perhaps Whitehouse were just another customer. Especially in those first years after he recorded with Nirvana, when many bands thought he was suddenly out of their league.

But when you listen to them, they were never “just another customer”. Their oppressive, uncomfortable sound – one of screeching electronics, occasional rhythms, bursts of white noise and shrieked, distorted vocals confronting terrible, questionable actions by people – is to most almost unlistenable, and I really have to be in the right mood.

But then, with Albini’s often reactionary tactics, especially back then, maybe he saw William Bennett as a kindred spirit, at least of sorts…

/Gogol Bordello
/I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again
/Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike

Another band perhaps somewhat different to many bands Albini worked with have also turned out to be one of my most beloved – especially the album that he recorded with them. A transnational band formed in New York City by Eugene Hütz with influences from punk, hardcore, dub, Ukrainian folk music and anything else he could think of, perhaps it took someone of Albini’s calibre to help them nail down what could often sound like unchecked chaos (something that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had the pleasure of their marvellously insane live shows). Granted, much of Gypsy Punks… still sounds like it’s careering out of control (just listen to that supercharged rhythm section on I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again), but it never quite collapses in on itself. Still, the recording sessions must have been frustrating at times for someone like Albini…

/Manic Street Preachers
/She Bathed Herself In A Bath of Bleach
/Journal for Plague Lovers

Something of a surprise release in 2009, fifteen years after The Holy Bible and fourteen since Richey Edwards disappeared, was a Manics album that used up most of the remaining, usable, Edwards lyrics – and appropriately, the sound was very much back to the searing, white-hot fury of the last album Edwards appeared on. Their work with Albini – the only time they worked with him – was even rawer, and even more urgent, and was such a change to the albums that they recorded either side of it, as if by channelling Edwards’ words turned the clock back. Wisely, the band never returned to this sound, leaving this as something of an outlier – but what an outlier it was, as frankly alongside The Holy Bible the band never sounded better.

/Hissing Prigs In Static Couture

By the time of their final full length album Hissing Prigs In Static Couture, Tim Taylor and Brainiac had continued their explorations of retro synths and wild, alien punk with extraordinary results – and on occasions, all the weirdness obscured some truly brilliant songs in the chaos. To be fair, that Brainiac would ever have been some mainstream hit machine was frankly laughable – they were way too odd for that – and Eli Janney (Girls Against Boys) did some incredible work on production on this album.

But one song stood out. Noted in the credits as “recorded by Steve Albini in his basement”, and I’ve long wondered the story around how it came about. But as a one-off, it’s extraordinary. Albini was infamous for letting bands do their thing, rather than trying to influence what they did, and here, a stripped back Brainiac absolutely tear into one of their catchiest, rawest songs, and it is probably the closest they ever got to nailing their extraordinary live power on record.

/The End of Radio
/Excellent Italian Greyhound

In a very different way, Albini’s later band Shellac were just as direct and difficult. This time, they were a guitar-bass-drums combo, this time with Bob Weston (as I recall, Albini’s partner in Electrical Audio, and a hell of a recording engineer in his own right) and Todd Trainer, but once again, there was a dry, stark sound that somehow made the band sound very different to any of their peers. But then, with two of the best recording engineers in Alternative music in one band, what did we expect? There was a lot to take in with Shellac, and once again, some of the songs went to some really dark places – like the retort to Murder Ballads that is Prayer to God, where a “wronged” man wants to take revenge on a cheating partner, but lacks the guts to do it himself, asking God to do so. But perhaps their greatest moment is the end-of-the-world broadcast of The End of Radio, where the last broadcast at the end of civilisation is imagined, and the broadcaster gets increasingly frantic as the end comes. Unexpectedly – I think many of us thought he’d live a whole lot longer yet – the end for Albini came quickly and suddenly, and thus Albini ended in his prime. Indeed there was a new Shellac album due this coming week, and it now becomes a fitting epitaph.

I never did get to see Shellac live. I had a ticket for the planned London show next month, and now my chance has gone. Weirdly, the only other band I had a ticket for where someone from the band died before the gig happened was…Nirvana, just after the release of In Utero.

Thanks for everything, Steve. It’s been a blast, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be listening to music recorded by you for years and years to come. It’s already been the best part of thirty-five years since I started doing so, and there’s time yet.

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