I know it’s super old school to care about producers in rock music, but I’m an old school kind of guy. It’s not as if it’s hip-hop or anything. It’s producing guitars and drums and shit that sounds like shit should. No bleeps and bloops, no wall of sound. No bullshit. Just straight ahead rock and fucking roll.
And nobody, in my opinion, does it better than Steve Albini. The man can make drums sound like the banging instrument they should be, not just background mush. And ripping guitar solos and squealing shredding and bombast all right up front and not buried in the overproduced whitewash reverb of most of today’s hipster music. Of course, reading over my Bitch Magnet review, I’m obviously talking about the album of the dual-album re-release that Albini did NOT record…
I clearly enjoy the man’s work as evidenced by the multitude of albums I’ve reviewed that were produced by him. Here they are in relatively chronological album release order:
Pixies: Surfer Rosa 
From the opening downbeat of “Bone Machine,” Surfer Rosa’s first track, you know this album is gonna kick some ass. Driven by the radical production of Steve Albini (can this guy make even a shit sandwich sound good?), this album is all up in your face. And despite there being a lot to grab onto here, this thing is still all knees and elbows. Black Francis talk/sings/yelps his way through song after song filled with skulls and body parts and illusions to things near and far. There’s terror and humor, and even a softer side of a band that would just as soon give you a hotfoot as spit something vile in your eye. Everything they do on this album just has an edge of smart to it. They aren’t your daddy’s punk band giving the middle finger and farting into the mic; they’re the thinking man’s college rock band. Oddly enough it’s actually the Kim Deal sung song, “Gigantic” that kind of steals the show here. Like her song with The Breeders, “Cannonball,” of a few years later, this thing just sticks in your head and begs for you to hit repeat. I know I wanted to marry her after hearing it. Even “Where Is My Mind” points to Frank Black’s later career direction and shows us that these guys are not one-trick ponies. One of the best pure pop punk albums of all time, and certainly my favorite Pixies record.
Bitch Magnet: Umber and Star Booty 
Who the hell mixed this thing? I could listen to this CD on the world’s best stereo and it would still sound as if I was playing it through my little cousin’s Hello Kitty boombox. The whole two-records-in-one thing is kind of weird in itself, and when the two are relatively indiscernible from one another, I guess it doesn’t matter. This is one of those albums I thought I’d con myself into liking, but, alas, I still don’t dig it very much. The thing is just too jumbled, the lyrics and instrumentation just too scattered, and the constant symbol hitting on the drums gets on my nerves. The lead singer sounds as if he just wandered in off the street to sing along with the band, showing his chops to be sub par at best. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay for an indie singer to have a bad voice, as long as it’s unique. Overall, without a complete re-mastering, this album just bores me. The second half, Star Booty, is a little better than the first, but sounds like an early Dinosaur Jr. album recorded in a fraternity basement. Overall, I can’t help but be disappointed with what I thought was going to be an amazing piece of art.
The Wedding Present: Seamonsters 
Another classic album. Another Steve Albini production. It’s not even as though I’m doing this on purpose, but I keep gravitating to these soft-loud-soft indie rock albums full of bombast and shrieking misery. One only has to hear the opening track of Seamonsters, “Dalliance,” to understand that this isn’t going to be anything but a banger. I mean, fuck, the thing starts off traditional and then just downshifts into absolute anarchy and then just kind of fizzles. It’s a tantrum. It’s awesome.
Lead singer and songwriter, David Gedge, isn’t what one would call a gifted singer. He’s serviceable in the old-school British punk tradition, sounding more like the drunk at the bar than a crooner or Robert Plant wailer. His slightly out-of-tune, guttural singing really sets of the slightly discordant music. The constant up and down of the banging and distorted guitars makes for a very active listening experience. A dynamism that can both entertain and challenge the ear. And, again, with Albini’s “live” sound, there is always this feeling that things could fly off the handle at any given moment. It’s a bit out of control. And that makes for a really fun album. It’s not staid. It’s a wild ride, but without turning off the listener. Because despite Gedge not being the world’s most gifted vocalist, he can write about his misery using pop hooks that can also really rock.
But Gedge has had some lady problems. Even the few mid-tempo songs on the album revolve around his angsty relationships and generally devolve into angry guitar strumming. It’s as if the noise in his head comes right out in the music. If I were his current girlfriend or his ex, I would worry about his mental state. He seems paranoid and insecure and lovelorn in some really unhealthy ways. You can feel the tension in the guitars and the burgeoning violence in the drumming.
And then there’s “Corduroy.” No, not the Pearl Jam song. This is the relentless indie rock classic that feels at times like it’s actually going to launch into space. Punishing, man. Just punishing. The whole album, thanks to the songwriting and the production, is visceral and in your face and raw without being unbearable. This ain’t no Death Grips or anything. But it is a strange asterisk in the formation of the grunge era because it’s a band that is way more Smiths than Sabbath. And for those of us who appreciate watching someone rip his guts out on stage, it’s pretty damned satisfying.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: Year One 
I keep finding all these albums produced by Steve Albini that I didn’t know or didn’t recall were produced by him. The guy certainly has a sound. And, on this, what amounts to The Blues Explosion’s first recognizable album, the bizarre punk noise experiment is underway. Sounding as if Rocket from the Crypt broke all their equipment, forgot how to sing but still tried to lay down some tracks anyway, Jon Spencer seems to have no coherent plan in terms of actually creating cohesive songs. It’s as if he’s “singing” merely based on feel and not a lyric sheet. Actually howling is more like what he’s doing – for 20 tracks! It’s so absurd at times, it almost seems like a joke. In fact, it may well be. To call this blues would be like calling the similar-styled Cramps a goth band. Nothing quite fits and nothing quite gels. It’s difficult to point to this album and say, “Yeah, that’s an awesome song!” Maybe, that’s an energetic song, that’s a fun song, that’s a crazy song, but rarely that’s an awesome song. Honestly, by track 10 it’s time to rest and regroup for the onslaught for the next 10.
Jawbreaker: 24 Hour Revenge Therapy 
This is one of the more consistently awesome albums ever. And even though Steve Albini doesn’t recall actually producing the album, he did a masterful job of translating the band’s live punk energy to this recording. The loud/soft dynamic is terrific and the DIY aesthetic isn’t ruined by overproduced slickness or wall-of-sound nonsense that haunts so many other albums from the intervening years. It’s a trio that sounds like a trio, each instrument doing its thing while Blake Schwarzenbach’s voice croaks to overcome the intense musicality like a latter-day Richard Butler after one too many late nights.
Blah, blah, am I right? The important fact here is that this is an excellent album. It captures a point in music before everything went crazy and then imploded. Released in May of 1993, a year and half after Nevermind and four months before In Utero. And, more importantly, about eight months before Dookie. It’s that bridge album that takes the agressiveness of Nevermind, but the off-kiltered, Albini-inspired rawness of In Utero and melds it with what would become the shiny pop-punk of Dookie. But whereas those albums became touchstones for a whole generation that eventually inspired hundreds of copycats, Jawbreaker was the original emo-grunge-punk hybrid band that could actually write a tune. But, of course, got lost in the wash of bigger names and acts that caught fire right at the right time.
And for those of us who were either fans, or had at least heard of, these guys (and didn’t confuse them with Jawbox), this album stands out as their masterpiece. I mean, these guys aren’t Radiohead or whatever and the warts are part of the appeal. Schwarzenbach’s voice always sounds on the verge of failure, and I think his guitar is literally played through a toy amp (according to Albini in the documentary about the band, Don’t Break Down). The drums and bass sound amazing and the chugging choruses and distortion-filled breakdowns are pop-punk at its best. It’s workmanlike in a way that many of the punk bands that came post-Dookie weren’t. It sounds like you’re listening to them in the club — and that’s how they should sound.
The original album had eleven tracks, the reissue/remaster has a bunch of alternative versions of tracks, which are relatively fine but not needed. I mean, I didn’t need to see the rough draft of any of my favorite books. So why do I want the scraps of songs that I really like in their finished form? Anyway, if there’s one song you want to listen to from the this album, it’s “Boxcar.” It’s 1:54 of gnarliness. It’s an early empowerment song about not having to acquiesce to what makes you or your band one thing or another. That’s kind of the attitude of the entire album. It’s an album about being scared and angry and pissed and resigned. Verging on emo in terms of themes, right?
Whatever the case, I just adore this album. I have for many years. It’s my go to whenever I feel like modern rock ‘n’ roll just doesn’t get it. It’s a security blanket for a time when music felt more personal and themes were much smaller and more intimate. Plus, it fucking rocks. I just wonder if they’d hit it quite right and had a more interesting backstory than a couple normal dudes who went to NYU that they’d have had a bigger career and this album would have been popular enough to go beyond being featured on a shitty website twenty six years after its release. Well, we’ll never know. But apparently they’re back out on the road in 2019 playing “Boxcar” and the other tracks from this album and others for a whole new generation of young people and their parents.
Nirvana: In Utero 
So you thought Nirvana was gonna go soft on their third album after Nevermind became one of the biggest albums of all time? Then you don’t know Nirvana. Success just pissed Kurt off, and he came out swinging on In Utero, securing the amazing production talents of Steve Albini. The sound, as compared to Nevermind’s almost liquid sound (maybe the floaty baby on the cover gave that impression as well), is in your face and seriously drum and feedback heavy and discordant in a way that their big hit album isn’t. That’s certainly an Albini thing, but it’s also a conscientious choice to create a more immediate-feeling album that amps up the primal factor and loads on the kind of raw emotion on songs like “Scentless Apprentice.” There is very little in the way of aiming for pop immortality here. Instead Cobain is playing a demented version of his biggest hit’s hook while yelling “Rape Me” over it.
The man seems to have very little interest in making his label rich. But Cobain and his swirling out of screamed displeasure and sorrow is the perfect elixir for a generation who so often rooted and continues to root for the antihero. A generation that prefers the noir over the shiny superhero film and the complex inner workings of a complicated man being puked all over the page by his rotting gut. It’s an album for the ages and a perfect denouement to short, violent career that left a lasting impression.
Silkworm: Firewater 
What more can you ask for than catchy rock songs about drinking and falling down? Almost every song is about the sadness and debauchery of a gin-soaked life. There is even a shitting of the pants! But it’s done in a wry, intelligent way, not a Party Hard! kind of way. Straight up rock n’ roll at the bottom of a bottle never sounded so good. This album is a serious hidden gem.
Silkworm: Italian Platinum 
It’s as if nobody makes fuckin’ rock ‘n roll anymore. Okay, this isn’t a completely accurate statement, but everything seems to fit into some niche. You got your KROCK rock (Hoobadrowningstaind), your emo, your nü metal, your alt-country rock, your garage rock revival, etc. Silkworm defies any of these categorizations. It can only be called “great music to get drunk by”–and we’re talking longneck bottles of Bud here folks. They’re one part Silver Jews, one part Dinosaur Jr., and another part some garage band that can write a melody. This is an awful comparison, and completely off, but I couldn’t think of anything better. Helping them in their journey is producer Steve Albini, who does a better job than anybody out there making a band sound live and raw. Listening to this album through headphones is the perfect way to appreciate his amazing talent for making drums sound great (a tall order if you listen to most rock albums out there).
McLusky: McLusky Do Dallas 
All frat boy outbursts aside, McLusky is like a Welsh Nirvana with a good sense of humor. They’ll make you tap your foot, bang your head and laugh your ass off all at the same time. The great thing about this album is that it gets better with every listen. You’ll find yourself mimicking lead singer, Andy Falkous’, gnarly Welsh accent as he screams and snarls his way through tight guitar driven punk-pop rock. Steve Albini does the producing, giving the trio that quintessential powerhouse sound that is all at once raw and grandiose. There’s nothing like some old school, raucous punk (with some nice Budweiser longnecks) to get your heart racing.
the Breeders: Title TK 
I’ll be honest, this Breeders album totally passed from my memory. Or perhaps I never really heard it to begin with. That’s more likely, truth be told. But fuck if I don’t love opener “Little Fury” and the Albini of it all more than anything I was probably listening to back in 2002 when this album came out. It makes me wonder how many other intriguing records I missed sitting in my apartment getting over 9/11 and planning my escape to the wilds of urban-suburban New Jersey with Ms. Hipster.
And maybe I’m into this album because it’s not really a 2002 album, but a 1997 one. Because of Kim Deal’s substance dabblings, perfectionism, unprofessionalism and apparent assholishness, it took several stalled recording attempts, a bunch of lineup and producer changes and five years to get to a record they couldn’t help but name Title TK. As a joke, or out of laziness or exhaustion I’m not sure. But whatever the case, this thing sounds super-cool and has that tossed-off Gen X feel that is reminiscent of everything we love in our slacker bands.
The sparse, live-sounding recording and Deal’s kind of slurred, breathless singing makes for a very intimate and unique experience. Add in her twin sister, Kelley, on sporadic harmonies and they form this almost haunting siren thing. It’s certainly not operatic or classic in any sense. Everything is slightly off-kilter and kind of glitchy in the best possible way. Kind of under and over-produced at the same time. With absolutely everything pushed to the front and surprising sounds coming at you from nowhere. The imperfections of Deal’s playing of almost all of the instruments turned into an absolute plus. Albini, you genius.
All that said, there are some cool-as-shit songs on this record. Which sound even better in headphones, so you can enjoy the air sounds coming off everything — especially her thumping bass and the bass drum. After all speakers/amps push air. And because of the production and the stripped down instrumentation you can actually hear the air moving around. It’s gnarly and impressive. You could throw this little know (in my mind at least) record on at a party and I think turn some heads.
I was never a huge Breeders guy. Loved Pixies, but Pod, for instance, was a little too out there for me. The slow stuff, the kind of free-form stuff. This album is much tighter, though retains enough roughness around the edges to make it feel rock ‘n’ roll. If I’m honest, I own Pod on CD, on which I listened to maybe a couple tracks here and there, but skipped over their Last Splash era stuff, save the ubiquitous “Cannonball.” So it was one and done for me until I rediscovered this gem. The streaming era leaves a lot to be desired, but as a discovery engine of overlooked music from your past, this made me a believer.
Cloud Nothings: Attack On Memory 
This is one of those bands that I’ve peripherally come across in my musical wanderings, but always dismissed them out of hand as “not my thing.” Oh, how wrong I was. Granted, my understanding is that this album is quite a departure from past efforts. Luckily, I don’t care what they used to sound like (they could have farted tuba music for all I care) cuz now they’re right in my wheelhouse. Guitar rock is dead my ass, as these guys — with some help from my favorite producer of all time, Steve Albini, — rock it old school with insane, thundering drums (complete with time signature changes galore), squealing guitars and raw-throated vocals overlaid with art rock aesthetic and Nirvana-like anti-melodies. Think a less prog rock version of an early Trail of Dead album. Though I suppose that’s like saying “think a less funky version of an early Parliament album.” It doesn’t quite make sense in the abstract, but in reality it’s right there — especially on the 9-minute second track, “Wasted Days.” The whole thing just feels like rock used to feel — wide open and exciting and aggressive but thoughtful. Maybe it’s just the radical shift in rock music to bleeps and bloops, but I can’t help but love the throwback nature of the attitude here. My only complaint is that at only eight tracks (one of which is an instrumental), it feels more like an EP than a genuine album. But even at its short length, it’s definitely at the top of my 2012 list so far. Rawk!
Screaming Females: Ugly 
To awkwardly quote Belle & Sebastian: “Jersey’s where it’s at!” Well, Jersey is where Screaming Females are at. Or from. Despite this fact, they sound more like a Pacific Northwest band from the days of yore. That could in part be the blistering production from my man, Steve Albini, but the nineties alt guitar rock aesthetic of Kill Rock Stars acts like Sleater-Kinney is evident all over the album. Add to that the fact that the band’s tiny lead singer, Marissa Paternoster, snarls and shreds the guitar like her little midget hands are angry at it and you have something that seems anachronistic on its face, but reminds us how pussified modern music has become on so many fronts. And in that is refreshing for its dedication to the lost art of real guitar-lead indie rock. Following on the heels of the great Wild Flag album from last year, this album continues in that vein but is rawer and less pop-driven. The lack of hooks in some songs can make the album more challenging at times, and Paternoster’s voice can, like Corin Tucker’s, grate a bit after long exposure but that is small sacrifice to immerse yourself in something that brings back that warm glow in your heart that has faded with the emergence of the laptop as a lead instrument.
The Cribs: In the Belly of the Brazen Bull 
I honestly don’t know a whole lot about The Cribs. And I feel, after listening to this album, I still don’t know a whole lot about them. I mean, I know one of the dudes, Johnny Marr, from The Smiths used to be in the band, but left prior to this album, and that at least one song was produced by my fave, Steve Albini, but the album itself really reveals little about what they’re all about. They seem to be three lads (all of whom are brothers) kind of in love with that middling 90s throwback, which is actually just a kind of 70s throwback, rock and roll that stays pretty completely within the same aesthetic box and rarely, if ever, surprises or excites. It’s how I feel about classic bands that adopted the whole British invasion shtick like The Jam and Big Star. The whole genre just feels watery and intentionally wimpy in its attempt to be all pop-like and neat. We get it, dudes, you like The Beatles and seventeen-year-old indie rock and stuff, but these days we either need a really good pop hook or some over-the-top energy or new shtick that differentiates your band from the other three thousand bar bands out there. I could put this album on, and I would seriously have no idea whatsoever who these guys were. It could be some 120 Minutes band from the early nineties or just another Brit band that heard that Yuck album and thought, “hey we can do that.” This is hardly a terrible album, and I do, of course, love Albini’s production on “Chi-Town,” but with all the millions of albums I have, I just need more something in my music these days to warrant many repeat listens.
Laura Jane Grace: Stay Alive 
Laura Jane Grace has changed a lot in the past few years. I mean besides changing her name from Thomas James Gabel and coming out as transgender in 2012, she’s concentrated on her solo career with one album in 2018 and this sophomore effort, Stay Alive. And I gotta say that it sounds kind of like an Against Me! album if it was put together by The Mountain Goats. But apparently produced by my man Steve Albini. How does this shit even happen!? Apparently by surprise is how. Because from all reporting, nobody knew this thing was coming — even the singer herself. Which in times of COVID is becoming more and more common as we are motivated by different things. But those motivations – as is evident on this record — can sometimes comes out more as a pent-up torrent than a cohesive, sustained thought.
This album has a frenetic quality that you don’t usually find in this kind of singer songwriter emo-ish thing. I’m not saying this is Dashboard Confessional or anything, but it certainly aspires to that somewhere in its emotional tenor. I don’t think the acoustic thing is normally Albini’s jam either, but he does make what is probably a thrown-together album sound pretty damn present. Yeah, that’s the word: present. Which I suppose for a record in 2020 that kind of came out of the ether is a pretty good thing to be. Apropos of the moment and all.
Laura Jane does have a bit of an affectation that is super-evident on track two, “The Calendar Song.” An affectation that makes her sound weirdly like Dana Carvey’s Garth character from Wayne’s World. I don’t recall that being a thing when she sings for Against Me!, but there is way less noise and guitar distortion on these songs and her voice is very up front. It’s not until song three, “Shelter In Place,” that she actually says the word quarantine. Which I suppose is the whole theme here. A person alone with her thoughts, stuck inside with herself. Which is not always a comfortable place to be.
Most of the tracks run between one and two minutes, which gives them a bit of an unfinished quality. It’s not that there haven’t been bands that have made their careers creating albums filled with song snippets (GBV for one), but here the tunes feel more like those filler tunes you hear on an otherwise fleshed out tracklist. You know the one I’m talking about. Track eleven or twelve on a twelve-track record. The one written on the tour bus or the bedroom next to the sleeping paramour. But thrown together out of a few chords and the inkling of an idea. You know, that little blues or lounge ditty thrown into a Replacements album that always seemed amusing, but not necessarily consequential.
All in all this feels like what rappers used to release as mixtapes. They were like the one-for-me releases between the one-for-you major-label drops. That need to release music when the feeling hits despite not really having a fully realized idea of what it should be. Thing is, sometimes they caught lightening in a bottle and one of the tracks would be a summer banger or hip-hop classic. But often times they felt a little muddled and half-baked. This isn’t quite that bad, but also doesn’t have a stand-out song that really showcases Laura Jane’s true talent. It’s like the rock record equivalent of a nitrous high: it comes on strong, makes you wonder 20 seconds in wether it’s ever going to end and then abruptly leaves you with the vague taste of whipped cream in your mouth and a weird pressure in your skull.
Cloud Nothings: The Shadow I Remember 
I feel like there’s not enough hecticness in music today. Chaos? I’m not sure what the right word is, but it seems like twee has taken over the world. And maybe it’s the controlled production of Pro Tools or whatever the kids use, but then along comes a return to chaotic form by Cloud Nothings, and all hope in rock music is restored. Thanks, in part, to my on-again, off-again producer crush, Steve Albini.
Like 2012’s Attack on Memory, The Shadow I Remember takes advantage of Albini’s “live” sound to capture Cloud Nothings at their best. Because nothing saps energy like over-production. Instead they’re just allowed to bang away, warts and all. And, that, my friends is what rock ‘n’ roll should be. Imperfect and noisy and raw. The type of thing that isn’t always pleasant on the ear. The stuff that would make your mom steer into oncoming traffic. Music that you wouldn’t think would sit behind this innocuous cover with the covered bridge and the wandering lane.
And what is there is not what one would call melodic. After all, Dylan Baldi has what we in the industry might call a limited range. He’s not shouting or screaming or growling like Damian Abraham or anything, but as soon as he tries to break out of his middle range, his vocal chords shred uncomfortably. Making for more of a bark than a growl. He always seems to be reaching for notes and not even close to getting there. So he ends up sounding kind of nasal and limited. But unique. So it’s kind of nice when he adds in the sweet female voice of Macie Stewart on a couple songs to add some variance. It’s not to say there aren’t melodic hooks here, though. Even when some of those hooks are followed by kind of off-kilter not-quite-hardcore breakdowns.
Mainly, I’m happy to see Cloud Nothings get back to what made me like them in the first place with Attack on Memory: straight-ahead all-over-the-place, balls-out rock music. It’s been a few albums. Honestly, the drummer, Jayson Gerycz, sounds like he’s back to trying to make his arms fall off. And you know Albini is going to throw that banging in the front of the mix. Which he most definitely does. Ultimately, I can’t say on my first listen that these were the most memorable songs I’ve ever heard, but the energy is undeniable. And on listen two and three, they started to move into focus. I need this album as the weather warms. Because there is no way I’m not driving with it blasting with the windows open (or the sunroof of Ms. Hipster’s car at the very least). Because summer energy is around the corner and it’s something we all need right about now.