Bootlegs of Shellac’s first BBC session with the legendary king-maker John Peel started surfacing fast on the heels of its airing, way, way back in 1994. And it remains readily available on the Internet to the right set of searching fingers. So, why choose to give it an official Touch and Go release? That’s the question that begs answering with The End of Radio, a new 2xLP out now that catalogs everyone’s favorite minimalist post-punk band playing live on the BBC in 1994 and, later, in 2004.
Of course, the big answer, this being Steve Albini territory, is fidelity. The recordings never got the proper sonic treatment over airwaves or, later, as uber-compressed MP3s online. And Albini, if nothing else, is a man who wants to get the sound just right. (For the record, the thing is obviously brilliantly recorded and mixed, with loving care.) The new recording does the original performances masterful justice. On “Crow,” from ’94, I used to think Bob Weston’s bass was a bit grungy, a bit dirgy. On The End of Radio, it’s mixed perfectly with a kind of throbbing, anti-treble undertone, a presence it lacked on the bootleg.
Examples abound. You can hear the resonating tin-metal trembling of drummer Todd Trainer’s hi-hat on the quieter moments of “Disgrace,” again from ’94, a real treat. “Paco,” from the ’04 sessions, was not one of my favorite moments on Excellent Italian Greyhound but here it shines, with the finger-plucked strings of Albini’s unusually undistorted guitar that start the song whistling a kind of birdsong. And having mid-aughts recordings of At Action Park-era gems like “Dog and Pony Show” (with wonderful harmonic play on Albini’s guitar) and “Il Porno Star” (with clangy close) alone is well worth shelling out the dough for this one. (The set also features an excellent excellent excellent and slightly wandering take on “Billiard Player Song,” with some of the most transfixing stuff being Albini’s yin to that familiar “Cables” intro yang.) One could write theses on the juxtaposition of 1994’s take on “Canada” and the 2004 version. In short, the band loses none of its vitriol while amping up the absurdity factor. (The trio starts the ’04 recording by harmonizing Canadian cuckoo-rico.) The quieter (sorta) moments of release staple “The End of Radio” are alarmingly and eerily prescient about the format of the evening, and pay touching homage to Peel; the records, whose second half features a small, Maida Vale live audience, close with the barbed-wire rendition of “Il Porno Star.”
Writing about Shellac is a bit of a fool’s errand, even worse than dancing to architecture. Yes, yes, notching up more than 10 or 15 years in this racket means you’ll get to review them “often” and try to think of clever ways to describe their sound. But, these guys famously release a record once every presidential administration, if you’re lucky, leaving less than an ideal amount of opportunities to get breathless about how wonderful they are. Well, kids, Shellac’s got another record out, its first in five years, and it’s a zinger, a real doozy. Time to get breathless. Ten fucking stars.