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8 Tracks: What was the Steve Albini sound? Almost everything

Artists like Superchunk, Neurosis, Pixies, Low, Mogwai and Joanna Newsom came to recording engineer Steve Albini when they had something righteous or defiant to proclaim.
Brian Cassella
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Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty
Artists like Superchunk, Neurosis, Pixies, Low, Mogwai and Joanna Newsom came to recording engineer Steve Albini when they had something righteous or defiant to proclaim.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

The same three records have led pretty much every obituary for Steve Albini, including my own. And how could they not? Nirvana's In Utero is a gripping maelstrom of vomitous punk. Pixies' Surfer Rosa swerves from sweet to sinister in an instant. PJ Harvey's Rid of Me simmers just as much as it seethes. Albini understood that, as a recording engineer, a moment made all the difference — his job was not only to capture a ring of feedback or the decay of a drum, but, more crucially, the integrity and feeling of that artistic choice. If an artist was willing to confront their truths, Albini was ready to take them into the gaping maw.

Even though I knew and even loved these records — and was later introduced to his bands Big Black and Shellac — the first time I really registered Albini as a distinct studio presence was on Low's Things We Lost in the Fire. In 2001, the trio was slowly stepping out its self-imposed slowcore parameters; even songs that "rocked out" (see: "Dinosaur Act") played with pace as an intensifying experience. Perhaps Albini could see this transition taking shape but knew there was still more to explore.

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"In Metal," in particular, presents the complicated and delicate balance the band was pursuing. What has always set this song apart was the care put into the sound of this sensitive (and secretive) impulse: to preserve the wonder of an infant child by, in this case, casting them in metal. Despite his reputation as a crank — not unearned, yet those whom he loved knew they were loved by him — Albini prized earnestness and vulnerability in art, especially the thoughts and emotions too shocking to utter. Somewhat against type, Albini gives Parker's heavenly voice a brassy weight; her floor toms, too, boom like looming thunder. Sparhawk's acoustic guitar strums are mixed equally with the squeaks of their baby. The lengthy outro overwhelms their voices with a sweet cacophony, as if to give in to the unknown chaos that awaits parenthood.

Albini didn't so much have a signature sound — though the noise-rock bands who entered Electrical Audio certainly didn't mind his pedigree of gnarliness — but a methodology built on conversations with the artist. No preconceptions, just ears tuned to the experience — the mics and mixes would follow. That's why he was sought out by Nirvana, sure, but also Slint, Man or Astro-Man?, Silkworm, Danielson, Jawbreaker, Nina Nastasia, Sunn O))) and The Breeders — all rock bands, but with different goals and intentions.

So for this edition of 8 Tracks, I asked my colleagues to share their favorite Steve Albini recordings — some of them will be familiar, some are deep cuts, all of them sound incredible. If you're a studio nerd (or want to be) and have not heeded Albini's knowledge, there are several sources, but his Electrical Audio How-To series on YouTube is a great place to start.

(Oh, and because Albini literally made thousands of records, it's impossible to capture to his entire scope, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention: The first four albums by The Jesus Lizard are completely unhinged, yet confident in their instability. There's never been a more synchronous studio match for Steve Albini. You should listen to the first four albums by The Jesus Lizard.)


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Pixies, "Cactus" (1988)

Is it weird to say a song conjures the smell of burning hair? The feeling of stinging skin? When I was 24, I lived in San Francisco in a shared apartment with a claustrophobic living room and an illegal addition that shot out of the roof like a weird eruption. I slept in that strange space. I was lonely, my stomach full of hunger. I became obsessed with the Pixies' Surfer Rosa; it smelled like a burn to me. "Cactus," a brief, weird shout into the void that might speak for a stalker or just someone with an extra-broken heart, was my favorite track. Its dynamics were unruly. Black Francis's choked vocals never fully surfaced; David Lovering's drums hit too hard. "Will you take off your dress and send it to me?" I thank Steve Albini for building a space within that song that had no air and yet infinitely extended, helping the Pixies reach a sound that sounded so dirty, so much like a body hurting, a heart hurting itself. —Ann Powers


Superchunk, "Throwing Things" (1991)

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Steve Albini's name doesn't appear in the credits for Superchunk's sophomore album No Pocky for Kitty, but his touch as a producer (or "recordist," whatever the man wanted) is unmistakable. The band's 1990 debut, an admirably bratty collection of pop-edged punk rock, had this constrained quality — the shouting vocals and drum kicks and guitars thrash into each other with no rest, tightening the space of each song like a mosh pit of drunk college kids closing in on you. But on No Pocky for Kitty, Albini did what he did best: He took the rising band's raw talent and honed their pogo-ready sound without muzzling it, transforming Superchunk's brash energy into big, focused, methodical power.

Nowhere do I hear that more than on its closing track, "Throwing Things." The song drags itself along for the first minute and a half, with Mac McCaughan's wearily singing, "I'm blowing up the street / Like a leaf." But there are flashes of resilience — "I'm starting to climb / Well I'm starting on my knees" — and with each utterance of that line so does the music, the song raging awake with gnarly drags of electric guitar and tight drumming so loud I feel like it could crack my skull. The last, pummeling minute of No Pocky for Kitty plays like the finale of a fireworks display, the blown-out sound of each member in the band throwing everything into playing, and Albini recording music that clearly reflects that live intensity on track. "He also made us sound huge, much bigger than we were in real life," McCaughan told Rolling Stone in a tribute to Albini. On "Throwing Things," and so many other records, Albini made an indie-rock band sound like an act fit for a football stadium. —Hazel Cills


Neurosis, "Under the Surface" (1999)

Albini made lasting partnerships: Will Oldham, Don Caballero and The Jesus Lizard were all repeat customers. Perhaps one of Albini's most enriching studio relationships was with the metal band Neurosis: They made seven albums together, starting with 1999's Times of Grace. "I guess what I like about their music is that it is as rich and as complex as the best," Albini told Tape Op in 2001, "and emotional music without having to do it in the same register of everyone else." That bears out in "Under the Surface," which explores what he described as "the subtleties within that intensity": For the first four minutes, polyrhythmic pummeling drives melodically devastating riffs, then drops out into a textured landscape of guitar sustain and low-end synths. That suspense requires a dynamic mix that doesn't compress the moment, but sits inside that reflection, especially as the band comes roaring back. —Lars Gotrich


Pinebender, "There's a Bag of Weights in the Back of My Car" (2000)

Albini earned his most eye-popping credits at Pachyderm Studio in Minnesota (PJ Harvey, Nirvana), but his home was Chicago, and his unadorned, "what you see is what you hear" approach helped define the region's skeletal sound in the 1990s. So let's go with the most Chicago song I know: Pinebender's post-rock epic "There's A Bag Of Weights In The Back Of My Car." The trio of Matt Clark (guitar), Chris Hansen (more guitar) and Stephen Howard (drums) recorded this 12-minute slow burn with Albini in February 1999 at Electrical Audio along with the rest of their debut album, Things Are About To Get Weird. –Otis Hart


Shannon Wright, "Hinterland" (2001)

In the early 2000s, Shannon Wright was something of a torch balladeer, but an experimental one at that. Perhaps that's what made Albini an oddly perfect fit. She made 2001's Dyed in the Wool with both Albini and Andy Baker, but the hauntingly intense sound of "Hinterland" can only belong to one engineer. First, there's the knotty drum work of Brian Teasley (Man or Astro-Man?) — a freakishly full frontal presence that punctures a large, reverberant room. Wright's piano playing is equally tangled, but just as percussive, her voice howling through briars. And that's it: drums, piano, voice. So spare, yet so full of fight and spite. —Lars Gotrich


Mogwai, "My Father My King" (2001)

As the '90s ended and the new millennium began, Albini's role in the scene started to shift from cattle-prod-in-the-major-label-system's-behind to something more like an oracle for certain sectors of the underground. Bands (like Bedhead, Low, Nina Nastasia and Jim White, Edith Frost, Don Caballero, the Breeders for its first album in a decade, Mclusky and Electrelane two times apiece ... so many more, obviously) with something righteous or defiant to proclaim sought him out as a provider of a certain truth as the industry, starting to slip from its millennial commercial peak, was still in heavy denial.

The miracle of the recordings he made during this half-decade run is their fluidity. Mogwai, like their chosen conduit, could be scabrous, and ready for a fight. But "My Father My King,"a 20-minute-long instrumental track based on a Jewish prayer melody that the group recorded with Albini in London in August of 2001, undulates from delicate to distorted multiple times. It sounds like something monumental shedding its skin: a revelation, an ugly catharsis. There's no question why it became Mogwai's signature song live. Maybe they knew it would be, and needed a guide who would help them witness the rough beast as it lurched into view, and then out again. As with so many of us, they were drawn to him in search of something true. —Jacob Ganz


Songs: Ohia, "Hold On Magnolia" (2003)

The adjective "uncompromising" stuck to Steve Albini throughout his career, implying a complex web of characteristics: a specific way of being a fussy, difficult stickler while also maintaining unwavering integrity. But Albini's north star wasn't so much "the way things ought to be" as "the way the artist wants them to be." He had an aesthetic, but it mostly boiled down to bestowing — or at least enabling — a process as free from outside interference as the music industry allowed.

Jason Molina, who released a string of harrowing and brilliant solo records under the name Songs: Ohia before forming the band Magnolia Electric Co., was uncompromising in ways Albini understood perfectly. When he recorded the project that morphed Songs: Ohia into a full-band enterprise, he enlisted Albini to assist him in translating his sparse, anguished solo sound into one that felt gnarly, epic and fleshed out, Crazy Horse-style. The resulting album housed some of Molina's best work, culminating in the grandeur and grace of what became one of Molina's signature songs, "Hold On Magnolia." —Stephen Thompson


Joanna Newsom, "Monkey & Bear" (2006)

If there is a more whimsical song than "Monkey & Bear," I haven't found it. I can't imagine I ever will. Just one of the epics from Joanna Newsom's wondrous 2006 album, Ys, it follows anthropomorphic characters through the lore of the constellation Ursa Major with Albini recording Newsom's voice and harp, in a bit of a departure from the guitar-rock world he'd been capturing before. To get the fullness and intimacy of her unorthodox playing style, which he once described as more of a piano idiom than a harp one, he set up additional microphones right next to the strings themselves to pull more detail from the plucks. Throughout the song's nine minutes and 29 seconds of winding storytelling you get a real sense of the instrument's majesty and the physicality it takes to play it, Newsom's voice overlayed like a canopy atop a meticulous orchestral marvel. The force of that combination transports such picturesque music from the ren faire to a realm all its own. —Sheldon Pearce

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Lars Gotrich
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Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.
Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Jacob Ganz
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Otis Hart
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.