Sunday, April 4, 2010

Recorded by STEVE ALBINI: 17 unconventional songs

(This turned out to be my favorite blog post to assemble - because in researching entries for this post over the past several months, I discovered some wonderful music I've never heard before - music that's leapt to the top of my new favorites list.)

I've always been more of a music than lyrics guy.

See, I think the best records are those records that you don't listen to for the effects or the singer's thoughts, you listen to for the music. The performances. The cohesive jelling of the band, performing their music, as one.

Oh I like those "studio creation" records as much as the next guy, because I think the studio - given the right circumstances and the right personnel - can be just as effective of a compositional tool as a band's jam session in the basement. But to me, nothing beats the sound of music performed by a well-rehearsed band, firing on all cylinders, captured in glorious room-sound-and-all recordings.

And the master of this is Steve Albini.

Now I'm no Albini fanboy (though I'm sure the world's laughing at that statement), because I know not everything he's touched is gold (last week's Bitch Magnet EP for starters). And the man records anything that comes his way and pays his fee (that's right, unlike any other "name" recordist/engineers (he hates the term "producer") out there, he charges a flat fee rather than royalty points), as long as he doesn't violently despise the music. And given the man's rep as a master noisemonger, it's a wonderful breath of fresh air to know that virtually anybody - from Nirvana to the three kids in the basement next door, playing Appalachian jug band folk songs - can walk up to Steve and record with him.

I suppose it's best to define "the Steve Albini sound" though, before we really get started. Albini is a no-bullshit engineer who, to the best of his ability (and it's an INCREDIBLE ability) tries to capture the sound of the band performing live. Most of the time the bands do exactly that, and while anybody can stick a mic or twenty in front of a band playing live in studio, it's the actual mic techniques, the dedication to capturing the natural room sound, the non-reliance on computers, and the basic "know your shit before you set up in studio with Steve" preparation that makes Albini's recordings sound so damn good.

So in celebration of this - and to bring greater appreciation to the breadth of music that sometimes never gets heard - I made this mini mix-tape-of-a-post celebrating the Unconventional Steve Albini: recordings that are antithetical to the common perception of the man, recordings that capture a mood, a sound not normally associated with the "recorded by Steve Albini" tag, etc. Basically, it's a fantastic compilation of wonderful songs, all recorded by Albini, that have nothing to do with noise rock, hardcore, "Chicago sound" punk, or what-have-you.

And I pre-emptively warn you (though you know... is there any other kind of warning than a pre-emptive one? Just asking...) however: There are some tracks here that will surprise you. Genres you'd never associate with Albini, or tracks you'd expect to hear at the local joint that has $1 Pabst drafts (or for those non-Americans, substitute your local hillbilly/redneck/low-class beer instead) for the regulars.

As with the blog's other compilations, I am not claiming this is anywhere close to definitive: by his own count, Albini has recorded thousands of projects. I only have perhaps, and this is a stretch, a hundred of them. If not less. So this is just the proverbial tip o' the ol' iceberg, as you will.

So let's roll the tapes...

- - - - -

17 "unconventional" songs recorded by Steve Albini
a exclusive

- - - - -

01 THE NEW YEAR / Folios
From the 2008 Touch and Go LP The New Year
Twee pop and Steve Albini? You got it! Twee with a subverted twist of course...

02 MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO / The Dark Don't Hide It
From the 2005 Secretly Canadian LP What Comes After The Blues
Imagine you were given an extremely detailed blueprint of the typical Neil Young and Crazy Horse sound. Then, taking that blueprint, you made a record. This is what the Magnolia Electric Co (Jason Molina) tracks on this compilation sound like: Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" dissected, thrown into the Crazy Horse blender, and the results sliced/diced and recorded by Albini. Absolutely reverential, absolutely essential.

03 LOW / Dinosaur Act
From the 2001 Kranky LP Things We Lost In The Fire
The drums on this track are amazing - I imagine a giant, empty cavern, with a lonely drum kit in the middle, and microphones all around the walls - and the resulting recording being just of the room reverbs. Stellar.

04 PALACE MUSIC / More Brother Rides
From the 1995 Drag City LP Viva Last Blues
This sounds as if Albini showed up on Will Oldham's porch armed with a tape machine and microphones, and just started recording Will and the guys. Appalachian hillbilly porch music at its finest modern interpretation.

From the 2007 Touch and Go LP You Follow Me
Brooklyn singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia teams up with Dirty Three drummer Jim Wright to record a beautiful collection of tracks based on Nina's fragile voice, gentle guitars and White's fractured drumming.

From the 1998 Pacifico Recordings LP 3
Just beautiful, barebones acoustic guitar, drums, wistful pedal steel and Phelps' unique voice.

07 SHANNON WRIGHT / Black Little Stray
From the 2004 Quarterstic Records LP Over The Sun
A very loud, quiet electric guitar and powerful drumming song. Very dynamic and a great showcase for Shannon's powerful voice.

From the 2005 Secretly Canadian LP What Comes After The Blues

09 BEDHEAD / Parade
From the 1998 Trance Syndicate LP Transaction de Novo
This "slowcore" band from Dallas, TX made their final record (as Bedhead) with Albini, before "reforming" in 2001 as The New Year. Basically this band is the Kadane brothers with whomever plays with them. The New Year trends towards more upbeat, acoustic and/or piano-based stylings, while Bedhead was a bit louder but slower. If that makes any sense.

10 LOW / Lion/Lamb
From the 1999 Kranky LP Secret Name

From the 2002 Touch and Go LP Italian Platinum
Bassist Tim Midgett wrote this piano-based song for noted Chicago-based chantreuse Kelly Hogan to sing. Midgett, to this day, thinks this should have been a Nashville hit.

12 SONGS: OHIA / The Old Black Hen
From the 2003 Secretly Canadian LP Magnolia Electric Co
Jason Molina's first sessions with Albini produced this amazing record, after which he changed his band's name to the name of this album. This track features the outlaw country vocals of a Lawrence Peters and is perhaps among the least likely songs you'd picture Albini recording - but it's just plain beautiful. I love the harmonies on the chorus as well.

13 NINA NASTASIA / One Old Woman
From the 2006 Touch and Go LP On Leaving
I just love these drums.

14 MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO / Northstar Blues
From the 2005 Secretly Canadian LP What Comes After The Blues

15 SILKWORM / Goodnight Mr. Maugham
From the 1997 Matador LP Developer
Andy Cohen's simple acoustic number is just beautiful. I like the opening.

16 THE NEW YEAR / 18
From the 2004 Touch And Go LP The End Is Near

17 MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO / I Can Not Have Seen The Light
From the 2005 Secretly Canadian LP What Comes After The Blues
And off we go gently into that good night.

- - - - -

enjoy! Grab the project here.

And if you have any suggestions of similar records that I've not covered, recorded by Albini, please drop a comment below!


  1. Not sure whether this track will fly, 'cause it's not conventional for either the band or for Albini, but...

    'William's Last Words' by Manic Street Preachers is one he was (so the band say) quite proud of. From the album 'Journal for Plague Lovers'. See also 'Doors Slowly Closing', same album, for a Joy Division sound-a-like.

    *loses indie points for liking the manics*

  2. I would have definitely encouraged you to include something off of CAREER IN ROCK by Volcano Suns (recorded by Albini under the name "Torso Man"). A very odd sounding record...