Noises Off

Shellac have always been big on fancy packaging, and 1000 Hurts comes in one of their fanciest yet, if you buy it in the LP form they all but demand. For the highest price of any Touch & Go album ever, you get a cardboard reel-to-reel tape box containing an ultra-heavy 180-gram vinyl record, a sticker and (just for the hell of it) a CD including the entire album. The CD, all by itself, sells for the same price. Cute.

Within the package is the hollowest, shabbiest album engineer/provocateur Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Breeders, PJ Harvey) has ever inflicted on listeners. It's got one solid, albeit underdeveloped, rock song: the opener, "Prayer to God" (RealAudio excerpt), in which the guitarist comes up with a mighty little riff and a black-humored lyric about a cuckold finding religion (chorus: "Fuckin' kill him/ Fuckin' kill him/ Kill him already/ Kill him"). Albini's also invented a pretty excellent new guitar tone — not unlike an especially well-tuned dentist's drill — of which we get 45 uninterrupted seconds at the end of "Mama Gina" (RealAudio excerpt), as well as a few eardrum-rattling moments elsewhere.

So much for the good parts. Otherwise, 1000 Hurts is a total bummer, 35 suffocating minutes of airless, joyless, pointless études. All of it is impeccably recorded, of course. Albini and bassist Bob Weston are both first-rate engineers, and nobody's better at making rock drums sound like what they sound like in person. Shellac are, as they say, a Very Tight Rock Unit. They're capable of fraction-of-a-second subtleties of timing, and they sound unfailingly tough (no drummer anywhere smacks his kit as hard as Todd Trainer). But they apparently no longer have any idea what to do with all that power and control.

The songs here are stultifying workings-out of trivial technical problems (see, for instance, "New Number Order," in which the band repeatedly speeds up and slows down in unison, or the way "Mama Gina" treats Trainer's drums as a lead instrument). The singing, as always, is incidental, but as weedy as Albini's voice is, the colorlessness of whoever we're hearing on "Song Against Itself" (RealAudio excerpt) (bassist Bob Weston, maybe?) is worse. And while the band's obsession with technical perfection in the context of noisy hard rock used to be a good joke, it's now become little more than an alienating crutch.

One final note: Albini used to go off about the worthlessness of "projects" (as opposed to "bands"), arguing that an ongoing, continuous commitment to a rock group was necessary for it to thrive. But releasing an album on which only four of 10 songs (one a half-baked instrumental, at that) were even recorded since the release of 1998's Terraform would suggest that Shellac are getting awfully close to the P-word. Wanna buy some used high-grain vinyl?