Posts Tagged ‘Steve Albini’

The album “Nevermind” turned Nirvana from unknowns to the biggest musical act in the world and positioned frontman Kurt Cobain as the face of grunge. Although a sensational album, it’s follow-up record “In Utero” that cemented Nirvana’s legacy. Unhappy with the over polished production of Nevermind and concerned with accusations of selling out, Cobain ditched producer Butch Vig for Steve Albini and set about recording an album capturing the harsh, punk influenced sound of their debut Bleach.

In a detailed four-page proposal to the band, Albini laid down his ground rules, the most shocking being his refusal to accept royalties. “I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth,” he wrote. “There’s no way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.” He suggested Pachyderm Studios for its isolation in the woods, claiming that recording in a city would cause distractions. He also banned visits from Geffen Records staff members, whom he called “front office bullet heads.”

Albini believed in working fast without over-thinking, so the band cut the album in just two weeks. “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up,” he wrote in the proposal. The speed at which they recorded, combined with the raw, visceral sound and minimal production, differed greatly from Nevermind, an album that was incredibly clean and streamlined.

In the February 1993, Nirvana made their way to the secluded Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, to begin work on their third album. The last time they had stepped foot in a studio, they were a little known Seattle band that had just left Sub Pop for David Geffen’s DGC. Now, with a multiplatinum album that knocked Michael Jackson off the charts and turned them into one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, they were under immense pressure to follow it up.

“In Utero” achieved this in spades. Draining opener “Serve The Servants” (“Teenage angst has paid off well”), thrash influenced “Very Ape” and cascading hit single” Heart-Shaped Box” were raw sounding tracks exemplifying Cobain’s want of an abrasive sounding record. “Dumb” and the moving finale of “All Apologies” offered lighter moments amongst the chaos, and although Cobain claimed the lyrical content of the album impersonal, it’s hard not to draw parallels between In Utero’s themes and Cobain’s life at that time. It’s 41 minutes of raw, uncompromising rock that was unlike anything else in the pop landscape. Cobain, disenchanted by his overwhelming fame and the widespread media coverage of his personal life, was ready to vent.

Cobain’s bleak worldview was on full display. Many of the songs are best remembered for their gut-wrenching, stripped-back acoustic renditions on MTV Unplugged, but In Utero is treasured among hardcore fans as Nirvana in their purest form. The original title was “I Hate Myself and Want to Die”.
“Nothing more than a joke,” Cobain told Rolling Stone. The line, which first appeared in Cobain’s journals in mid-1992, became the working title for the follow-up to Nevermind. “I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. And I thought it was a funny title. But I knew the majority of people wouldn’t understand it.”. Fearing the title would result in the same legal trouble Judas Priest faced three years prior when two fans shot themselves, Krist Novoselic urged Cobain to rethink it. The other working title wasVerse, Chorus, Verse, but Cobain finally settled on In Utero, which he took from a poem of Courtney Love’s.

Nirvana

Cobain had one goal in mind: to bring the band back to their punk-rock roots. Their millions of new fans may have reveredNevermind, but Cobain thought it sounded “candy-ass” and way too commercial. So he recruited esteemed engineer Steve Albini (who had recorded Pixies, the Breeders, the Jesus Lizard and other Cobain faves) and headed for the woods in rural Minnesota

Cobain wrote “Rape Me” to dramatically condemn rape and emphasize his support for women, but the song sparked immediate controversy. “Over the last few years, people have had such a hard time understanding what our message is, what we’re trying to convey, that I just decided to be as bold as possible,” he told Rolling Stone. A huge supporter of the riot grrrl movement and a fan of bands with female members like the Breeders and the Raincoats, Cobain wanted In Utero to pave the way for more female artists. “Maybe it will inspire women to pick up guitars and start bands,” Cobain said in 1993. “Because it’s the only future in rock ‘n’ roll.”

Wal-Mart and Kmart refused to carry “In Utero” because of the song “Rape Me” and the graphic imagery on the back cover.
Cobain agreed to change the title of “Rape Me” to “Waif Me,” while the back cover was softened to comply with the demands. “When I was a kid, I could only go to Wal-Mart,” he told his manager Danny Goldberg. “I want the kids to be able to get this record.” 

Understandably, “Rape Me” caused other issues for the band, most notably at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards when network executives told the band that if they played the song they’d immediately cut to commercial. Feeling challenged, Cobain played a bit of the song when they walked out and then went directly into a blazing rendition of “Lithium.” 

All three members received credit on “Scentless Apprentice,” an extreme rarity for the group since Cobain normally wrote the songs himselfThe raging “Scentless Apprentice,” inspired by Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume, is the only track on the studio album co-written by Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl. (On Nevermind, they shared credit on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its B side “Aneurysm.”) “Scentless Apprentice” was recorded in just one take. “Nobody said, ‘We should do it again,’” Grohl said “Because that was the fucking take.”

Cobain wrote out a detailed vision for the “Heart-Shaped Box” video with William Burroughs as the star. “William and I sitting across from one another at a table (black and white),” he wrote. “Lots of blinding sun from the windows behind us holding hands staring into each other’s eyes.”

By the time he approached Burroughs, he had decided to cast him as an elderly Jesus, even offering to conceal his identity. “I realize that stories in the press regarding my drug use may make you think that this request comes from a desire to parallel our lives,” he wrote in a letter. “Let me assure you that this is not the case.” Though Burroughs declined the offer, Cobain finally got to meet his beat hero at his home in Kansas that fall. 

After Cobain met Courtney Love in 1990, Love gave Dave Grohl a heart-shaped box to give to Cobain. She filled it with items that matched Cobain’s taste — a porcelain doll, dried roses and other tokens — and sprayed some of her perfume on it. As Cobain and Love’s romance blossomed, the item became a symbol of their love. It was also the one item in their home they had in common.

 

“Pennyroyal Tea” was one of Nirvana’s first songs to showcase the soft-loud-soft formula they became famous for. It was first written and recorded on a four-track with Dave Grohl in Cobain’s house in Olympia, Washington. It went through several permutations before its release on In Utero, including instrumental takes recorded by Jack Endino in 1992. “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were debuted live the same night, at the O.K. Hotel in Seattle in 1991. “Pennyroyal Tea” was slated to be the third single for In Utero,but was cancelled after Cobain’s suicide in 1994.
After Cobain’s death, the label decided to recall copies of the single, which had a B side of “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” and destroy them. But copies had already been sent overseas and somewhere between 200 and 400 of them reached the fan community.

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Image result for surfer rosa images

Surfer Rosa is one of those perfect debut albums, that lets you know what you’re in for right out of the gate. The blueprint for the album, and for so much of the guitar-based music that followed over the next decade or so, is set within the first minute of the lead track, “Bone Machine.” David Lovering’s spare yet ferocious drums, the sound of them so vast that you wonder if he’s actually playing an oil rig. Kim Deal’s muscular, melodic bassline, underpinning but never overstepping. Joey Santiago drawing blood out of a few crystal-sharp notes of guitar. Black Francis (aka Frank Black) yelping for sixteen bars of agitated verse over a relative lull of music before Santiago yanks the song back into a chorus of blistered lips and “uh-oh!”—the first instance of the loud/soft motif that the band further refine and recalibrate through another dozen frenetic and thrilling songs, most of which combust around the two-minute mark.

The Pixies made Surfer Rosa not long after their formation in Boston, Massachusetts, and just a few weeks after the release of their debut mini album, Come On Pilgrim. Both releases were themselves culled from a March ’87 demo, The Purple Tape, which included embryonic versions of several Surfer Rosa songs: “Break My Body,” “I’m Amazed” and the album’s most straightforwardly hardcore moment, “Broken Face.” At the urging of their British label, 4AD Records, Surfer Rosa saw the Pixies replace Purple Tape producer Gary Smith with a relatively unknown recording engineer, Steve Albini, who was best known at the time for his work with his own band, Big Black. After a get-to-know-you dinner at Lovering’s place, the band and Albini set to work on the record at the newly opened Q Division Studios in Somerville, a few miles north of Boston, which had ironically been recommended to them by the ousted Smith.

Famously opposed to both the title “producer” and the concept of receiving royalties on albums he worked on, Albini was paid a flat fee of $1,500 for his ten days of work on the album, out of a total recording budget of $10,000. He would be similarly forthright in his critiques of the band’s performances, alternately hailing them as “genius” or dismissing them entirely.

In press interviews at the time, the band would characterize Albini as a “brainiac” who loved lo-fi and instruction manuals but had little enthusiasm for “anything human-sounding”—the result of which meant that those ten days of recording were spent honing guitar and drum sounds, with vocal parts left until the very last evening. Special effects were eschewed in favor of an abrasive, unadorned—and soon to be much copied style that found its perfect foil in the Pixies’ deceptively delicate (and often delicately played) songs. Even overdubbing was generally avoided. “He hates overdubs,” Deal had told Melody Maker.

Though the two would later on form a deep friendship (as evidenced by their joint panel at this year’s SXSW festival), Deal was somewhat dismissive of Albini’s methodology in subsequent interviews. But Albini always had a fan in Black Francis. “I like him because he likes loud,” he exclaimed in the same interview. “All the needles were on red. He totally overloaded the tape.”

Assistant engineer John Lupner, meanwhile, was struck by the lengths Albini went to authentically capture the particular sound of Q Division Studios. Not everything was quite so meticulously planned, however. According to John Murphy—Deal’s husband at the time—the abrupt end to “Where Is My Mind?” came about by accident, as a result of the tape running out while the band was playing. “The tape started to go click click click,” he told Frank and Ganz, “and they went, ‘Well, we got most of it.

If there’s an overarching theme to Surfer Rosa, it’s a Lynchian scratching away at the underbelly of modern life to reveal tales of voyeurism, incest, and other deviant behavior. Francis put these preoccupations—that include a rather ahead-of-its-time portrayal, in “Bone Machine,” of a pedophile priest (or “preachy-preach” in Pixies vernacular)—down to his “real hardcore Pentecostal” upbringing. It’s not all about molestation, though. Two songs (“Broken Body” and “Tony’s Theme”) reference superheroes, while several others draw on a six-month period Francis spent as an exchange student in Puerto Rico the inspiration for both the Spanglish lyrics in “Vamos” and “Where Is My Mind?” with its dreamy evocation of snorkeling “in the Car-ibb-e-an.”

Though vocals were left until the final day of recording, they were by no means an afterthought. Indeed, the interplay between the band’s two vocalists, Francis and Deal, would become another Pixies trademark. In keeping with his vérité style, Albini abandoned studio trickery in favor of natural acoustics. Deal’s two most memorable vocal performances—her lead on the bouncing, pop-toned single, “Gigantic” and the oo-oohs that run throughout “Where Is My Mind?”—were recorded in the bathroom, its natural echo proving preferable, as far as Albini was concerned, to any available studio effect. The latter song’s false start jarring and seemingly throwaway on first listen is instructive as to the attention to detail from both band and engineer. Deal’s first ooh, which precedes Francis’s curt instruction to “Stop,” has a sharp rawness to it. When her voice returns in the song proper, it’s engulfed in an underwater haze much more befitting the lyrical reverie.

There are further spoken interjections elsewhere: some within the songs, such as the aforementioned opening to “Bone Machine” and Deal’s similar announcement that “Tony’s Theme” is about “a superhero named Tony,” and some in between. “I’m Amazed” begins with Deal mid-sentence, gossiping about a teacher who’s “into field-hockey players.” “Oh My Golly!” ends with Francis yelling “You fuckin’ die!” at her. He goes on to clarify that he’d done so in jest, in response to her warning that no one mess with her equipment.

Surfer Rosa was released in March 1988 in the UK and remained available only as an import in the United States until late summer, when 4AD signed a North American distribution deal with Rough Trade. Initial U.S. pressings paired the album with Come On Pilgrim. The two works were then reissued separately in 1992, after Elektra Records took on the 4AD catalogue.

Having received largely positive press notices, Surfer Rosa sold solidly in the interim, if unspectacularly—perhaps in part because, like so many landmark albums, it found itself a little far ahead of the curve. Winning the hearts and minds of college radio and Melody Maker (which named the album the best of 1988) would not yet yield widespread success. The album did not go gold in the U.S. until 2005, by which time the Pixies had disbanded, lain dormant for a decade, and then reunited for the first of several deservedly lucrative world tours.

By then, of course, Surfer Rosa had been well and truly canonized as one of the most influential albums of its time, with Nirvana and myriad others taking the Rosa model and running with it, many of them queuing up both to sing its praises and to summon Steve Albini to work his magic to record his own band’s album In Utero . Kurt Cobain listed it as his second favorite album of all time (after Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power)

Among the earliest advocates for the band, meanwhile, was one of rock’s greatest statesmen, David Bowie, who would later lament, “I thought it was a hell of a shame that America didn’t recognize its own with the Pixies.” His 2002 album Heathen includes a well-judged cover of Rosa’s “Cactus,” a short and sweet ballad about a prisoner so desperate for something—anything from his wife that he ends up begging her to smear her dress with blood and “send it to meeee.”

Another important step in the album’s elevation came a few years earlier, with David Fincher’s clever use of “Where Is My Mind?” in a pivotal scene toward the end of Fight Club. Since then, that song in particular has become so inescapable that you’ll even hear gentle piano renditions in HBO prestige dramas. Surfer Rosa regularly appears on all-time “best-of” lists online and in print.

Pixies
  • Black Francis – vocals, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar
  • Kim Deal – bass, backing vocals, vocals on “Gigantic” (credited as Mrs. John Murphy)
  • Joey Santiago – lead guitar
  • David Lovering – drums

Purplene - Purplene LP

This adventurous and brooding self-titled album by Sydney band Purplene is regarded by most as their definitive work, recorded by Steve Albini. A classic Australian record originally released 2004, finally now on vinyl and digital platforms.

This band should have been huge. Fantastic slo-core at times, post-punk, pre-emo. Fragile verses, and it gets sophisticatedly loud only at times where it should. Recorded by Mr. Albini. Sounds perfect.

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Originally released March 15th, 2004

Purplene:

Matt Blackman – Voice / Guitar (left) / Synth / Piano
Dave Ledlin – Guitar (right) / Mellotron on 4 / Bass on 2 / Voice on 6
Adam Jesson – Bass Guitar / Guitar (right) on 2
Matt Rossetti – Drums / Guitar (right) on 8

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Second best album cover of the month. It’s produced by churlish punk iconoclast Steve Albini, which is often a good sign as he mostly chooses jobs via his taste rather than the demands of his bank account. The band are titled after the nickname for their hometown, the not very lovely industrial port of Immingham, near Grimsby and Hull, and they look like a bunch of school kids pretending to be the New York Dolls (no bad thing!). Their second album lasts around half an hour and rattles along on a grungey, amphetamine rhythm section, covering Hawkwind along the way, capable of showy guitar snippets (“All I Wanna Do Is Waste My Time With You”) and even a scabrous attempt at reggae, “Trying to Find Pixies” (again, with incongruously tasty guitar work). Mainly, however, this is a punk rock rampage – on appropriately yellow vinyl -its totally enjoyable listen and it’s a blast.

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Shellac and the album “Dude Incredible” Was a long awaited return of Shellac. Steve Albini was too busy making everyone else sound good and when he finally returned to work with the ultimate power trio, with bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainor, he found the unit as tight and taut as ever. With their masterful timings and perfect sound Shellac are the best hard rock band on the planet – they genuinely kick ass but with an introspection and lyrical intelligence that places them in their orbit. The highest compliment could be is that they sound like the band that Steve’s collection of 40 plus brilliant and rare mics was invented for and “Dude Incredible” is a thrilling album of songs that are as heavy as their debut album