For 90’s college nerds of a certain age, it’s time to face facts: We’re old.

The other day, I realized that Pixies’ iconic debut Surfer Rosa came out 25 years ago.

The song up top, “Bone Machine”, leads it off; it’s got surreal lyrics and demented lead vocals from Black Francis, with disconcerting throat-shredding screams, sing-speaking, stuttering, and yelping. Bassist Kim Deal contributes backing vocals that are equally sweet and sour, while she and drummer David Lovering methodically bulldoze the china shop.

Pixies were unlikely-looking rockers making a then-unconventional racket that shouldn’t have been as catchy as it was, and that racket went on to inspire a multitude of bands (Nirvana being the most high-profile example).*

Equally crucial to Surfer Rosa‘s legacy as one of the most influential records of the last quarter-century, though, is the sound of the recording itself, engineered (he doesn’t like to describe what he does as “producing”) by opinionated (some more recent hits may be found here and here) and prolific independent musician Steve Albini.

As indicated by his preference in title and terminology, Albini claims to have no distinctive sound, and does not feel it is his role to insert his own opinions into the recording or musically-direct the bands that he records, instead considering himself a technician who attempts to capture the sound of each instrument as accurately as he can.

He accomplishes this via the use of analogue equipment, unconventional microphone placement, minimal use of overdubbing or effects (including reverb or compression) in the studio or mix, and attempting to record the musicians simultaneously as a unit in a single room whenever possible.

Perhaps ironically, this no-frills style, somewhat akin to a photographer who only shoots in black and white, has resulted in many records with an easily-recognized sonic signature; the typical Albini production tends to have unadorned and less-prominent (some might say semi-submerged) vocals, a “realistic” ambiance (by which I mean, it sounds like humans, playing and sweating in a room together), and a sharp-edged immediacy to each instrument’s sound.

When the guitars are loud and distorted (which is often), they are set to “pulverize”; but if quietly- and softly-strummed, they are allowed to vibrate and ring out:

Low – Starfire

But he’s best-known for his distinctive drums, which sound somewhat akin to standing inside the very kickdrum of God, or John Bonham (but I repeat myself):

Albini on Recording Drums

Albini himself prefers music that is somewhat abrasive or atonal, both in his own bands like Big Black and Shellac, or the noise-rock bands that he has recorded such as The Jesus Lizard. Amongst other things, he has written

I like noise. I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin. I wanna feel it whipping through me like a f*cking jolt. We’re so dilapidated and crushed by our pathetic existence we need it like a fix.

Though I may prefer some different flavors, I think I know what he means.

Don’t blame him too much, but he was inadvertently partially-responsible for inspiring the sound of much so-called “nu metal” via his 1992 involvement with Helmet’s brutally machine-precise Meantime:

Helmet – In the Meantime

But as a friend of mine once remarked upon receiving one of my mixtapes (ed: See? OLD), my dirty secret is that I like pop music. I like a hook and a catchy tune. And it’s when Albini does his thing to melodic pop/rock songs that I often enjoy his work best: like he’s stripping them down while at the same time putting some meat on their bones, resulting in fighting-weight rock music that can throw a punch and leave a bruise.

In 1997, Albini and Cheap Trick re-recorded their classic album In Color of two decades prior. (A fellow Chicagoan, Albini had covered the Trick before, amongst other further-flung bands.)

Albini’s version of the album has never been officially released, which is a shame, because it kicks all kinds of ass:

Cheap Trick – Southern Girls (Albini re-recording)

Leeds’ The Wedding Present made a hormonal tornado of an album called Seamonsters with Albini in 1991, the same year Nirvana released the equally-Pixies-indebted Nevermind. For my money, the lovelorn Seamonsters has aged better.

On album-opening stunner “Dalliance”, shadowy bass and casually-clattering drums steal in like a low-pressure system; at 1:40, the breeze starts to pick up ominously.

Then it’s batten down the hatches, because at 2:45 a hurricane of hurt and loss swamps the ship. David Gedge’s strangled vocals sound like they are struggling to surface:

You told him what he wants to hear
And so you got another chance
But I was yours for seven years
Is that what you call a dalliance?!

The Wedding Present – Dalliance

“Hurricane” is not a bad description of what Scots instrumental rockers Mogwai often get up to. In the epic Albini-recorded “My Father My King” (based on a Jewish prayer) those drums still hit hard underneath an alternately-sinuous and -squalling Eastern melody:

Mogwai – My Father My King

It’s perhaps appropriate that Mogwai eventually got around to recording with Albini, since they borrow heavily from Louisville’s even-more-experimental Slint, whose 1989 debut Tweez was recorded by Albini:

Slint – Kent

Man. Those were some long honkin’ songs.

Here’s a briefer Albini effort from the B-list:

The Breeders – Happiness Is A Warm Gun (Beatles cover)

Merge Records’ founders, the hyper-caffeinated sprinters known as Superchunk, recorded 1991 sophomore album No Pocky For Kitty with Albini; he gave the band a muscular low-end thump that their trebly adenoidal anthems often lacked (and just writing that sentence makes me wish that somehow Albini had gotten a chance to record Hüsker Dü).

If you didn’t feel old already, you will when you see these kids:

Superchunk – Throwing Things

But I say you are never too old to get your pogo on:

Superchunk – Skip Steps 1 & 3

If you seek shredding of more recent vintage, diminutive Marissa Paternoster of NJ’s Screaming Females and Albini demonstrated how to rock it in 2012 with Ugly (WARNING: Video contains cartoonish gore and murder mayhem, as well as gratuitous caticide):

Screaming Females – It All Means Nothing

We’ll end with 2004’s absolutely lovely “Gone Under Sea”, from Brighton’s sadly-defunct Electrelane (don’t let the delicate guitar at the start lull you too much – they work up a good head of Stereolabby steam by the end):

Electrelane – Gone Under Sea

Feel free to hold forth in comments about: Albini; drums; recording techniques and distinctive producers; where’d the last twenty-five GO, anyway; or whatever the heck you want to talk about. I’m just an amateur music blogger, man, not your mother.

*There’s a pretty neat A/B comparison of some of the original Albini “In Utero” mixes to the Scott Litt-produced single remixes requested by the record company here.

The easiest one to hear a comparison on is “Pennyroyal Tea” at 7:35; on the other two tracks, Albini’s mixes weren’t mastered, so the Litt final-album versions sound superior to me. Presumably because they were mastered, they are not so muddy, and have high-end, and are just punchier (or maybe I’m just used to them).

But on Albini’s “Pennyroyal Tea”, which was mastered & made it onto the album, you can really hear his style, and it’s more pleasing to the ear than Litt’s, IMO (perhaps due to its relative lack of compression?)

Also, Albini appears to have re-used the lead guitar tremolo effect from his mix of “Heart-Shaped Box” (at 3:07) on this song at 2:20 – guess he didn’t want that to go to waste.


Glyph is worse than some and better than others. He believes that life is just one damned thing after another, that only pop music can save us now, and that mercy is the mark of a great man (but he's just all right). Nothing he writes here should be taken as an indication that he knows anything about anything.


      • man way to take the 90s college nerd thing and OWN it. totally reclaiming it back from the oppressor. (me)

        that said i hate the way albini messed up yanqui uxo. it’s just so flat and lifeless. it’s one of his rare complete misses (in the production department, not the picking a client dept)

        • I haven’t actually heard Yanqui, but you are not the only person to make that complaint.

          It’s weird – GY!BE is often sort of grouped with Mogwai – even though they are a bit different in their instrumental approach (Mogwai being much closer to a standard rock band setup), they still do that whole epic/dynamic buildup thing, so if he could handle Mogwai, you’d think he could handle GY!BE.

          And it’s not like Albini can’t handle dynamic non-rock instrumentation/arrangements, check out this Electrelane choral(!) number:

        • Also, as far as “picking a client”, supposedly he will record *anyone* who pays his reasonable flat fee at his studio (though if you want him to record elsewhere, pricing gets wonkier). So get thee to Chicago if you’d like him to do your next one!

          From wiki:

          Albini does not receive royalties for anything he records or mixes; rather he charges a flat daily fee when recording at his own facility, described by Michael Azerrad (Azerrad, 2001) as among the most affordable for a world-class recording studio. In fact, Albini initially charged only for his time, allowing free use of his studio to friends or musicians he respected who were willing to engineer their own recording sessions and purchase their own magnetic tape (Azerrad, 2001). When recording elsewhere, Albini uses an admittedly arbitrary sliding scale:
          “ I charge whatever the hell I feel like at the moment, based on the client’s ability to pay, how nice the band members are, the size and directly proportional gullibility of the record company, and whether or not they got the rock.”

          • i don’t fault his business choices, but just wanted to draw a line between “he produced a lousy band” and “his production was lousy”.

            as to what happened with yanqui uxo, i dunno. he has a very “flat” style, very naturalistic if we were to steal an example from painting. and i think when you have something that’s really rich, and heavy, and layered, and just hugely dynamic, it’s not the best match. it doesn’t help that it’s not the best album, either. it’s by no means terrible, mind you, just not great.

          • It’s also obviously a collaborative effort despite what Albini might say. He and Kim Deal were supposed to have produced a GbV record that was scrapped by the band before Under The Bushes, Under The Stars (one of my favorites of theirs, and the one I use to try to introduce people to the band).

            You’d think he/they would have been a natural match (Supposedly the notoriously-curmudgeonly Albini contacted Matador and asked them to have GbV give him a call, so he apparently thought so too), but the record was aborted (2 of the songs made it onto UTBUTS, and one of them definitely sounds like Albini, and a few others came out on singles & EPs and such).

            Bob Pollard was quoted as saying something like, “I think we gave Steve inferior songs.” To get back to what you are saying, if the songs “got the rock”, as intangible as that is, Albini’s recording style can really heighten that. But he’s not a fan of “fixing it in the mix”, so if the band is feeling listless and uninspired for whatever reason during recording and he’s reticent to insert his own opinions or tell them what to do, his naturalistic recording won’t help them any.

          • i gave yanqui uxo another listen today to make sure i wasn’t crazy, and it really does sound flat. (these are flac rips, mind you, so it’s not like i boned that up) dunno what the vinyl sounds like.

            but my glib summation would be something like “he tried to make godspeed sound like big black”.

          • also you are totally a jehovah’s witness for guided by voices.

  1. I kind of got lost in the maze of bands I’ve never heard of …

    but! This post reminds me of a conversation I had with my wife the other day. We’d just finished watching the documentary on Sixto Rodriguez and were talking about his sound. I thought it was a direct lift from early Dylan and Cat Stevens (whatever!) and we both started talking about how what he really needed was a good sound guy/producer. Someone who could make his music unique.

    Which brings me to another documentary I watched recently about Simon and Garfunkel (The Making of Wednesday Morning 3 am, or something like that) which was very much on my mind when I saw the Rodriguez film. Simon and Garfunkel had a sound engineer who was an effing genius! The guy did all sorts of crazy things acoustically (recording in elevators, outside, in cathedrals, hallways, anywhere the acoustics and in particular the echoes were just right (how the what??) ) to not just capture S&G’s sound, but create it. I’ve heard of lots of other sound techs/engineers/producers who do the same thing. In fact, it seems like most really great bands have really great sound engineers either producing or mixing or recording their stuff.

    Which brings me back to Rodriguez and this post. If Sixto had an effing sound guy who wanted to do more than rip off Dylan and the Catman, he’d have been a huge star. The songs are great, his voice is incredible, the lyrics are … well … pretty damn good. So, for example, a sound guy who put as much effort and creativity into creating music and recordings as the guy you’re writing about.

    Sound engineers and producers are very under-appreciated in general musical fandom. I know I’ve bought albums because Steve Lillywhite or Daniel Lanois produced them. Just because I know the sound is gonna be great. These guys are under-sung heroes, really.

    • the maze of bands I’ve never heard of …

      What? You’ve never heard of Cheap Trick?! What is this world coming to? 😉

      I might have gotten a bit carried away, but the man has made many good records. I tried to give a variety.

      in particular the echoes were just right

      In one of the linked videos Albini talks about placing the microphone just so, so it will pick up reflected sound.

      One thing that strikes me just now is that Albini, as a punk kid, probably went to a lot of basement shows, and that may be the “natural sound” he is trying to capture – so of course the drums are emphasized and the vocals less so.

      (Another thing that strikes me just now is how many of the tracks I used in the OP are album-openers. The man knows how to smack you in the face and get your attention).

      If you are just dipping your toes into Albini, you may want to avoid the Big Black/Jesus Lizard/Helmet end of things, at least until you’ve had your coffee. Much of that stuff is kinda harsh.

      But the Low and Electrelane tracks are beautiful. Even though he’d probably bristle at the comparison – and he bristles at many, many things – I think you can make a strong case for Albini being as important/influential as Martin Hannett in the realm of postpunk recording, though his techniques and philosophy and results are almost diametrically opposed to Hannett’s, who deadened space and made the instruments sound separated and cold and distant and alien and unlike themselves, rather than any approximation of interrelated and natural and “live”.

      Lillywhite is interesting because he doesn’t seem to be heavily-associated with a particular “sound” – if you look at the albums he’s been on, they don’t seem to share much of a common sonic thread (insert random shout-out here for the Furs’ Talk Talk Talk!) – he seems to vanish into the record.

      I associate Lanois in my head with a kind of discernibly “smeary” warm ambiance, though that could be the Eno link? I also get Flood mixed in here, all these guys through the U2 link.

      Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips et al) CAN be good, but his kind of brash style is sometimes really intrusive and mismatched to the bands he works with, and can become tiring and distracting (though occasionally if used sparingly enough it works to the advantage of something that might otherwise be kind of limp and dull like this, which instead becomes beautiful).)

      I’ve heard good things about that Sixto doc, did you enjoy it?

      • The Sixto documentary (“Looking for Sugarman”) is outstanding. I benefitted from not seeing the trailer or hearing about in detail in advance, so many of the twists and turns presented it were unexpected to me.

        I like everything else you’ve said here. Lillywhite’s genius seems to have no particular personality linked to it; Lanois’s does – some sort of deliciously soupy mood. (And you’re right about how confusing things can get on that issue: Lanois is linked to Eno and Flood and even guys like Malcolm Burn (who produced Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl album). Good stuff. Thanks for the post!

  2. Sending a Pandora station to the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” make a pretty good station; I imagine you’d like it. Because of the proliferation of their influence, it makes a pretty good mix of music from the past quarter-century.

    • It’s funny to think of how jarring – kind of frightening, actually – Pixies once were, now that their tics have been so thoroughly digested.

      Though I’m still not sure anyone screams like Black Francis.

      Here’s two more of his most terrifying:

      After the second chorus (2:19) on “River Euphrates”, from Surfer Rosa:

      Basically the whole of “Rock Music”, from Bossanova:

      I cannot drive the speed limit if these songs are playing.

      • Can’t believe I forgot “Tame”, from Doolittle:

        The best part is that you think Black Francis can’t sound any more insane, what with repeatedly screaming the song’s title in a high-pitched monotone; then, at 1:52, he adopts a more guttural tone, rising into a shriek.

        It’s kind of terrifyingly nightmarish, like the crazy homeless person on the corner stopped randomly yelling at the sky, and turned into some toothy monster, whose eye has just fixed on you.

  3. The other day, I realized that Pixies’ iconic debut Surfer Rosa came out 25 years ago.

    Remember driving around in the car in the late 70’s listening to the Motown radio station and thinking that “these are moldy oldies”?

    Yeah, your parents were about as far away from those songs as we are from Mr. Brightside.

    • Since my son is now a teenager, this sort of things pops into my head fairly regularly. It’s depressing.

    • I look at it the other way. My kids really love the Beatles, which would be like me really loving Paul Whiteman.

      • Hmm… this is a fun game. My son is a big blues fan, and really likes to listen to Robert Johnson. I suppose that would be like me loving “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

        • Yeah, I looked up 1952 and found that “Blue Tango” was the number one song.

          I listened to it.

          I realized that I don’t know that I’d ever heard it before.

          Then, for some reason, I got even more depressed than I imagine I would have had I immediately recognized it.

          • Wow. Listening to that, you’d have no idea that they were just a couple years from the beginning of the rock era. No wonder my grandparents, born in the 20s, hated rock ‘n’ roll so much.

  4. Dude, why are there so few songs in this post? I want my money back!

    Kidding, of course. I actually listened to every song but the Mogwai, because a.) it’s really long, and b.) I have it in my little mp3 player thingy so I can listen to it later if I want. Love the Superchunk (who I haven’t heard in years), love The Wedding Present (who I haven’t heard in like 15 years), and love the Low. Never been a Trick fan, though. Does that make me a bad person?

    Speaking of the length of the Mogwai song, there are a few really long songs on my player thingamajig, songs of 20 minutes or more (off the top of my head, this one, “Echoes”, and a Decemberists song that’s more than half an hour long). Since I walk or take the bus just about everywhere and listen to music most of the time I’m in transit (I go through a pair of earbuds every 6 weeks), these songs are awesome when they pop up randomly, because they’ll usually take me just about the whole way from start to destination.

    • Never been a Trick fan, though. Does that make me a bad person?

      Maybe not a bad person, but unAmerican for sure. The Trick are a national treasure! 😉

      I have mentioned this before, but being from the South, Superchunk came through here all the time, and Chapel Hill seemed like the northernmost part of the kingdom; bands from there were still “our team” to root for.

      My now-wife and I made the mistake of seeing Superchunk 2 nights in a row once. Do you know what 90+ minutes of pogoing will do, when you did the same thing the night before, and your calves have not yet recovered from the muscle strain, but you don’t know that, because the pain has not yet set in?

      Yeah. It sets in on Day 3, and you basically can’t walk for a couple days, and you spend hours smearing Tiger Balm on them and trying not to weep.

      Superchunk somehow seems unjustly-forgotten to me. Now, I realize they were maybe a little everyman-meat-and-potatoes – they are *almost* melodic enough to be considered pop/punk (though I think they had enough dissonance and sharp angles in the music to distinguish them from, say, Green Day); and they had enough self-awareness to call their song publishing company “All The Songs Sound The Same.”

      But at their best, no one did “excitement/frustration” better.

      Here’s another driving/speeding song, “Precision Auto” – that minimalist 2-note guitar riff just relentlessly bores into your skull like a dentist’s drill:

      “Hyper Enough”, sort of a mission statement. Love the way all the instruments are seemingly racing each other for the finish line:

      And my favorite of theirs – there has never been a better “unrequited desperate crush” song than “Detroit Has A Skyline”:

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