Shellac, “To All Trains”

The noise-rock outfit’s relatively brief final album features their tightest material in their three-decade career while capturing their most critical characteristic: contrarianism.

Shellac, To All Trains

The noise-rock outfit’s relatively brief final album features their tightest material in their three-decade career while capturing their most critical characteristic: contrarianism.

Words: Kurt Orzeck

May 22, 2024

To All Trains

Of all the moronic bromides that sound profound but don’t actually provide any true insight, “Life comes at you fast” takes the cake—tell that aphorism with a straight face to someone in standstill traffic and you’ll get the deadliest of stares. “Death comes at you fast” is just as stupid, although last week’s unexpected passing of the most important engineer in underground music made a case for its suitability. Steve Albini died from a heart attack that probably lasted shorter than most of the songs he wrote.

Albini’s status as an engineer extraordinaire always overshadowed his supreme musical talents. That’s unfortunate for Shellac, the band he shared with bassist/vocalist Bob Weston (a towering engineer and musician in his own right) and amusingly animated drummer/vocalist Todd Trainer. To All Trains, the trio’s sixth and final album, is quintessential Shellac—and don’t you dare substitute that polysyllabic word with the corporatese phrase “on-brand.” They hibernated (or the record gestated—we may never know which) for 10 years, the longest stretch of time between Shellac albums. And yet it was the shortest one they ever made, toeing the line between EP and LP at a mere 28 minutes in length. But if you’re confounded by those decisions, you’ll need to dig deeper to comprehend the essence of Shellac.

It’s not just mathematics and empirical data that make To All Trains a perfect manifestation of the three-man band. Creation cannot be understood in terms of ones and zeroes. From a certain standpoint, every album with the name “Shellac” attached to it accurately reflected the band. Thematic experimentation was never a departure for the trio; it was their essence, their purpose. Many of us will always consider Shellac’s debut, 1994’s At Action Park, to be their best release. But what do we know? As Albini and Weston sing in unison on the new album’s “Girl From Outside”: “Two guys from work / Who are not at work / You know the song / It’s your favorite song / You are kicking ass on the song / High five.”

That said, To All Trains is integral to Shellac’s oeuvre because it captures their most critical characteristic: contrarianism. At a time when deluxe editions of albums come out mere weeks after their initial release, when it’s not unusual to sit in a movie theater for more than three hours, when most interviews with artists inevitably revolve around what’s next instead of what they just made, Shellac respond with a middle finger and the tightest material of their 30-year career. The record rocks in the sense that it penetrates into the soul. It’s pop in its concision and catchiness; it’s punk in that it upends norms; it’s metal because it expresses anger through entertainment; it’s experimental to the extent that the term is a lazy way of describing something different. 

The album leads off with “WSOD,” which culminates in the loudest and most distorted blast of noise that Shellac ever made. “Girl From Outside” bashes the concept of equating content to art with Albini’s gem of a lyric: “Mailman, sing us a song / You carry a tune in that bag? / Mailman delivers / I’m not a mailman” (it’s only bested by the line “I’m through with music from dudes” on the hyperactive “Chick New Wave”). Shellac take a breather on the two softer tracks that follow, but keep on their toes with tempo changes galore. “Scrappers” is what Shellac sound like when they have a hankering for honky-tonk. “Days Are Dogs” calls out creatures for sniffing each others’ assholes, to which Albini says he’d rather have syphilis or gout. 

Good luck finding a boring five seconds on To All Trains, which also doesn’t contain any of the moroseness that’s practically endemic to career-concluding records. Weston takes command of the mic on “How I Wrote How I Wrote Elastic Man (Cock & Bull),” a hypnotic jam. The bluesy “Scabby the Rat” goofs about a 12-foot tall inflatable pro-labor rodent that cooks potatoes. The album-closing “I Don’t Fear Hell” is the long-lost cousin to “My Black Ass,” the first Shellac song on their first record, creating a firm sense of a closed loop. 

Shellac challenged us to live in the moment decades before the concept became yet another trendy catchphrase hollowed out by corporate branding. At a Shellac show at the Knitting Factory in January 2001, the band stopped playing mid-song as Albini stepped into the audience and snatched a tape recorder out of the hands of a fan. He climbed back onto the stage and said he’d return the recorder at the end of the show, but that Shellac wanted everyone in the room to savor the experience the band and crowd were sharing together. One could argue that the band died not with the advent of the compact disc, a medium they fiercely resisted as long as they could, but the proliferation of the cellphone.

Now, as the cultural battle rages between those who sincerely thirst for a connection to the present moment and those who can’t live without some sort of distraction, Shellac have had their final say on the matter. It won’t do you any good to wonder if and when another album by the band will magically materialize, as they tend to do, sans marketing or even much advance notice. You can stop restlessly checking your wristwatch or phone or whatever piece of technology is sold next under the banner of granting us more freedom and saving us more time. Shellac are done fighting that fight. Their train has left the station, this time for good.