“Steve Albini ‘King of All Engineers’? Not So Fast”

I’m writing this in repsonse to a headline I just saw on Bandcamp relating to the recently deceased rock musician/producer Steve Albini [1]. Now, of course, I realize it’s bad form to be critical of the dearly departed. Part of my issue, anyway, as it were, has to do with our annoying habit of speaking really hyperbolically about a person in their post-mortem commemoration, with a clear motive for increased website traffic, I’d say, in this and most cases. 

Regardless, it is true: Albini was probably more influential upon the worlds of grunge and indie rock than any other Chicago resident in history. I could never find any enjoyable songs to have sprung from the Big Black catalogue but Rapeman and Shellac did rock along with a decent amount of energy and tension, buoyed, in a sense, by some psychotic lyrics from one Mr. Albini. And Rapeman’s cover of the old blues standard “Just God Paid” is definitely mastodon stuff. 

Albini’s efforts in production were many and copious, his big “break” probably coming in the 1980s and his opportunity to work with the Pixies [2], another musical entity on the verge of a sort of commercial boom, proportionally speaking. He would then go on to produce The Breeders’ debut, which featured, of course, Kim Deal on bass and vocals, the original bassist in the Pixies. As I mention before, he subsequently produced many other albums [3] by notable acts. 

Of equal notability is that none of these acts returned to his production duties for a follow-up album, with the sole exception of The Jesus Lizard, a band which pretty much made music stylistically identical to Albini’s own uncompromising grunge-rock muse and artistic leanings. Actually, in my opinion, Albini almost ruined the Pixies. I mean, wedged between two classic albums, Come on Pilgrim and Doolittle (as well as, probably, Bossanova, for that matter), Surfer Rosa literally isn’t even listenable, let alone solid or classic. It starts with this hopelessly uncomfortable song about preacher molestation with bizarre vocals and an anticlimactic chorus. From there, certain standouts do manifest, like “Something against You”; “Cactus” and “I’m Amazed”; but the album is sequenced abysmally, with side B far overloaded with the LP’s overall musical quality, to the point where by the time you get to the good stuff, you more than deserve such a reward for your patience. KIm Deal’s overtly sexual rocker “Gigantic” is a success, on the whole, the Albini version mind you being substantially outpaced by the rendition which would show up on the compilation Death to the Pixies — one with a more compressed mix and better penchant for showcasing Deal’s gorgeous voice and the juicy chord changes prevalent in the song. 

The Pixies weren’t an act beholden to physical, apocalyptic grunge, like, say, Skin Yard or the Melvins. This is what Albini failed to realize. 

In general, I don’t have too much of a problem with Albini’s work on Nirvana’s In Utero (although his exploits of prank calling Eddie Vedder and referring to his own co** at the dinner table, per report, are shennanigans I personally could do without), aside from the fact that he basically sucked all the life out of “Pennyroyal Tea” by making it a grunge song. Cobain was a true singer/songwriter and this song, in my opinion, thrives in the unplugged setting and finds this to be its ideal habitat. 

Similarly to Surfer Rosa, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me is structured atrociously, with side B containing the vast majority of its good songs, and, again, obtusely reliant on that intense grunge-rock sonic interface, which works for making a cultural statement, but is ultimately inept at potentiating swatches of excellent songwriting, the type of thing that wouldn’t need a sort of genre-borne mask, of sorts. 

By contrast, Joe Chiccarelli, a well-known producer who worked on many projects including The White Stripes’ excellent Icky Thump, said some interesting things on his episode of Gear Club Podcast, which basically amounted to the dictum of flexibility as a soundman as a virtue. It was his noted practice, in other words, to take a completely open mind when entering the studio with a band, and gauge their m.o. and technical strengths, as a creative musical outlet, before deciding just what style of production he wished to employ. This receptiveness to particular artists’ uniquenesses and quirks is an area where Albini sorely was lacking. Anyway, I sure hope producers like Brendan O’Brien, nicer, more cooperative and proviso of a way better artist retention rate, get as much props when they die as the headstrong militants. 


[1] Albini is best known for having fronted the bands Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac and having a decent grunge production oeuvre under his belt which includes projects with the Pixies, The Breeders, The Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, The Jesus Lizard, Nirvana and Bush.  


[2] Charmingly, Albini would refer to the Pixies album he worked on, Surfer Rosa, as a “patchwork pinch-loaf.” 


[3] In nauseatingly staunch diction and adamancy, anyhow, Albini insisted that you refer to him as an “engineer,” and not a producer, which actually probably jibes better with his expedited, boorish approach to recording, and its grunge rock/booming snare drum uniformity. 


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