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Shellac’s ‘To All Trains’ Perfectly Balances Steve Albini’s Sarcasm With Biting Noise Rock

Forget the Platonic ideal, Shellac have always aspired to the sardonic ideal. On a ditty cheekily titled “Chick New Wave” — off To All Trains, the noise-rock group’s sixth and final album following the recent death of its singer-guitarist Steve Albini — we hear Albini hector, “I’m through with music from dudes … all I care about is chick new wave.” And of course he sings this as if the three musicians who wrote and recorded the song aren’t dudes whose last album was titled Dude Incredible, and that any chick would let him slide with calling her a “chick.”

But nudging the envelope was always Albini’s mission, though he dialed it back in recent years. With his first band, Big Black, he sang about bored pyromaniacs set themselves on fire and titled an album Songs About Fucking, ao by the time Shellac released their third album, 2000’s 1000 Hurts, a song like “Prayer to God,” a post-grunge rumination on which he petitions his deity to kill the man who stole his woman painfully (and smite her painlessly), the approach already felt like Albini lite. By Dude Incredible, released a decade ago, he and his bandmates seemed interested more in having fun but with tongue more firmly in cheek than previously. Albini’s whole demeanor seemed to change in the past five years, too, as he asked the internet for a reckoning for his past “edgelord” behavior. These days, he was all about dark sarcasm, not really hurting people’s feelings (jokingly or not), and that mordant levity is what defines To All Trains.

Albini and vocalist-bassist Bob Weston sing most songs with a smirk. There’s the album’s “How I Wrote How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ (cock & bull),” whose title takes the piss out of the Fall song from 1979 which took the piss out of a comic strip from around 1939. “Before we start, I must explain, the title once was ‘Sauerkraut’” Weston deadpans on the song. And there’s “Scabby the Rat,” a Wipers-like ode to everyone’s favorite union mascot and, of course, the LP’s opening lyrics, “Aspire to bronze, but I’ll settle for lead” on the arena rock sendup, “Wsod.” Albini and Weston even say, “high five” to each other on “Girl Form Outside,” and they are two men who do not seem like the high-fivin’ type.

Maybe the snark is all a test to see how closely you’re paying attention, since Shellac have always existed in the interzone between Serious Art Rock and serving as the genre’s preeminent roastmasters general. The Fall and Cheap Trick were equal influences on Albini and likely his bandmates, but he also liked to play Lenny Bruce onstage.

To All Trains captures the nexus of serious/not serious that Shellac made their métier. It’s 28 minutes long (shorter and funnier than a Young Sheldon) and it sounds glorious, even when streamed from a phone to Bluetooth headphones around ears with low-level tinnitus (Albini would likely have winced that anyone would listen to any music that way, but hey, he recorded and mastered the record in a way that translates perfectly even to the worst listening situations.) Musically, the rhythms lunge, drummer Todd Trainer cuts loose throughout but especially on a free-rhythm section of “Wednesday” and a cowbell on “Days Are Dogs,” and they even find a swinging blues groove on “Scrappers,” a song whose lyrics read like they’re written by the kings of the junkyard. Hey, it’s fun.

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The only time the irony crosses a line is on the final song, “I Don’t Fear Hell,” on which Albini gnashes his teeth while singing the lines, “I’ll leap in my grave like the arms of a lover,” and “If there’s a heaven, I hope they’re having fun/’Cause if there’s a hell, I’m gonna know everyone.” The music ebbs and flows and crashes into itself like a gorgeous sonic tempest, but hearing Albini sing those words (and “If I can’t take it with me, I’ll have it all now” on “Days are Dogs”) so soon after his death feels cruel.

Still, if anyone disliked sentimentality (as this and every Shellac song proves) it was Albini. By that measure, To All Trains might not be Shellac’s defining statement (sadly, that was every time they performed live) but with its snarling lyrics and crisp sound, the record certainly meets the Albinic ideal.

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