Published Jun 24, 2019A live recording captured inside of a studio makes quite a bit of sense when it comes to Shellac, of North America, and these documents of their 1994 and 2004 performances in BBC's Maida Vale facilities are just incredibly wonderful. Each were for Peel Sessions, so named after the revered BBC DJ and underground music champion, John Peel, whom Steve Albini, Todd Trainer and Bob Weston held in great esteem. As such, there's a specific specialness to the intensity contained within each of these respective sessions, born of joy and pain.
By 1994, Shellac were only a couple of years old, but the trio were already swimming in songs and ideas for things that would soon become songs. Albini and Weston were known as much for their audio engineering and record-making expertise as they were for being musicians, and Trainer has always distinctively been one of the greatest drummers to ever do it. They'd released singles and a whole album when they walked into the BBC for their first Peel session and promptly performed three unreleased, new songs.
"Radio One, play the drum!" Albini yells and Trainer obliges before Weston's bass rumbles forth, Albini starts in on guitar, and then he and Weston scream gibberish in a call-and-response that is ludicrous. They titled the thing "Spoke."
"We oughta name/a song after you/Call it Canada," Albini sings on "Canada" whilst in England, four years before the song would appear on their wondrous album, Terraform. "Imagine a country so blue/backwards it's Adanac." Just great, great fun and a particularly precise form of abandon back in '94.
On October 25, 2004, John Peel died suddenly of a heart attack while on a working vacation in Peru. On December 1 of the same year, Shellac returned for another Peel session and the mood was sadly and obviously different. "We are Shellac, of North America, and we are dedicating this session and probably the rest of our career to John Peel," Albini says sombrely, eliciting applause from the small, assembled audience (the previous session featured no audible witnesses).
The emotion of the day is transmitted almost immediately, as the band tear through "The End of Radio," the second of eight songs here, three of which eventually appeared on 2007's Excellent Italian Greyhound. "The End of Radio" is more or less a satire of radio DJ conventions, made all the more absurd by the notion that such a man might be so in love with himself and his platform, he might not even notice that the world had ended and his broadcast is reaching nobody.
The character in the song is the antithesis to what the culturally altruistic Peel stood for and how he was regarded, and yet his passing really was the end of a kind of radio, and Albini infuses the comical song (this version's "Martina Navratilova" section is particularly funny) with real love for the man they're ostensibly there to honour.
That same sense of gaping loss is present in this performance of "Billiard Player Song," from their first single, 1993's The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History. As many of their songs might in a live setting, this one can expand, leaving room for something Shellac (often Albini) may wish to explore or express. In this particular era, the band took their interest in musical "minimalism" to new frontiers, with more compelling a cappella vocal sections and narrative monologues. It's rather arresting, when all the thunder and lightning in this configuration goes silent and all you hear is the singer (both tunefully and later bellowing), telling us all about a "hard winter," and feeling like you're right there, inside of that feeling.
For all their might and subtle theatre here, Shellac had a really good time paying tribute to John Peel in 2004. This "Il Porno Star" is highly entertaining (Albini subbing out "porno star" for "porno guy" and his delivery of the latter is deeply amusing) and for every ragged vocal, there's another that sounds better than the controlled album version. Every song on The End of Radio has by now made it on to a Shellac release, but it's a testament to the singular artistry of this band that these two Peel sessions provoke pleasant feelings of awe and surprise at things that sound both familiar, yet fascinatingly alien. (Touch and Go)