Big Black - Songs About Fucking
It's possible that you know Steve Albini better for his production work on The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey, Pod by The Breeders or, most famously of all, In Utero by Nirvana. Or you may have heard of Albini through his recordings of one of the, in his words, a thousand bands you've never heard of who are based around his native Chicago. Indeed, you might have seen his current band Shellac on one of their occasional tours around Europe but where most of his fans this side of the Atlantic would have first seen his name was on this, the final studio album from Albini's first band, Big Black.
Big Black started out as an Albini solo project, recording bass, guitar and vocals over a backing provided by a Roland TR-606 drum machine onto a 4-track he'd got his hands on after swapping a case of beer for it. With each of the early Big Black releases being EP-length and issued only on vinyl, it wasn't until their debut album, 1985's Atomizer that Big Black started to pick up any attention either nationally or abroad. With a sound nor far from an industrial accident at a steel mill, Big Black were aggressive, punishing and had an uncompromising attitude towards their music. Whilst it would be some years before Albini, after Big Black split, formed his next project, Rapeman, leading to workers in distribution plants refusing to handle his records, the startlingly-titled Songs About Fucking was Big Black's second and final studio album. With that title, its lurid green sleeve and the drawing of the woman on the front, Songs About Fucking was designed to capture people's attentions long before hearing the music on the disc.
But that's not to say that the music isn't worthy of attention, far from it. Without Big Black, this album and the same year's Butthole Surfers' Locust Abortion Technician and Sonic Youth's Sister, alternative (or indie) rock might have taken that much longer to discover that it's cool to sing about the life's nastier side. Then again, without Big Black's harsh industrial sound, Al Jourgensen and Trent Reznor would not, in all likelihood, have hit upon the commercial success of industrial metal as soon as they did, with Ministry's The Land of Rape and Honey and Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine released one and two years, respectively, after Songs About Fucking.
So much for who Big Black influenced but is Songs About Fucking any good? Well, yeah, it is. Beginning with Power Of Independent Trucking, which gives short shrift to anything approaching indulgence, Songs About Fucking sets off on a series of brutally short songs that grind and clatter over an industrial rhythm. With Steve Albini's trebly metallic sound spinning off against Santiago Durango's more pounding riffs - think an electric power tool up against a pneumatic road drill - Big Black's guitar sound is harsh and razor-sharp. With a drum sound still supplied by Albini through his drum machine and bass played by Dave Riley, although it is often barely noticeable, the songs pile up like the bodies in an accident during rush-hour. No song hangs about and with only a couple of skewed yet faithful covers - Kraftwerk's The Model and Cheap Trick's He's A Whore - to lighten the tone a little, Songs About Fucking gets dirty amongst the company of losers, murderers and other everyday folk.
A few highlights on the album, other than the immediately recognisable covers, are Precious Thing, Kitty Empire and Ergot, all of which are thrillingly immediate and bruising. Tiny, King of the Jews is a great song with a mix of Big Black's punishing noise coming up against psychedelia and, odd as that combination might be, the song works well. Otherwise, there's Fish Fry, which combines the tale of a killer - he opens the song washing out his pickup after kicking a woman to death and dumping her body in a lake - with a couple of sharp riffs played off a pounding rhythm.
If even the title of the album is enough to upset you, don't bother going near Songs About Fucking. It's not an album that plays on a title like that only for there to be some smooth soul within. As brutal as that cover is, the music is even more so but this is the key album from a band that were of equal importance to Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers and Husker Du, as all being US-based alternative rock bands of the eighties. If you're into the others or you came later to Ministry, Nine Inch Nails or, somewhat sadly, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, you might want to check out where a lot of it began - Big Black's Songs About Fucking.