Monday, April 21, 2008

Superchunk - S/T

There are very few bands like Superchunk.
The closest ones: Black Flag, Beat Happening, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys.
The connection? Each band started their own label.
The difference? Merge is bigger than SST, K, Dischord or Alternative Tentacles years after its founding band's heyday.
The reason? Merge has legitimately been after talent since they opened their books--Dischord and K skewed regional, Alternative Tentacles seems like more of a hobby than a business, and SST is just a clusterfuck historically. SST may have been the coolest label in the mid-80's, but they probably did not take as good care of their artists as Merge does in the late 00's. And they even have some of the same bands (i.e. Dinosaur), not to mention Spoon and the Arcade Fire, and, to bring us back to our main point, Superchunk.

I do not want to get into all the specific details of how Mac McCaughan started this label with his girlfriend when they were in their early 20's or any of that, because to be honest the chronology is rather difficult to place, since I believe Superchunk's self-titled debut is actually the third or fourth record to be released on the then-young Matador label. It is clear that a few wildly influential personalities intersect in this band's infant years, and so it is not surprising that they would reach the heights they later did (Nirvana opened for them once; they sell out anytime they play post-2004). Still, Superchunk is mainly familiar to the masses through vague name recognition. A while ago they were talked about when Emo became mainstream, but besides their style being aped beyond recognition and stupidity, there is not much reason for anyone to talk about them. Their last album was 2001's Here's to Shutting Up. Portastatic is a significantly more active presence in the music industry than Superchunk at the moment. And in a way, the last 2 Portastatic records were like "Superchunk-lite," as I heard them described as by a fan at their show. But this is about before any of that. This is before Nirvana, before Pavement, when Sonic Youth was writing Goo, and NIN was putting out Pretty Hate Machine and the Smashing Pumpkins were putting out Gish. This is before Steve Albini became their producer and before the words "indie" and "Chapel Hill" went together. I.e. This is when "Slack Motherfucker" was written.

Oeuvre rule before we start: I know all Superchunk. I would write a book about them if Mac would let me. But that's probably not necessary, given how well they document themselves on the insides of their CDs, on their website, and in various liner notes. At least everything's known about the process of making each of their albums--the gossip about the band remains largely under wraps and would not be prudent to uncover. The mystery of their lyrics adds a great deal of interpretative possibilities to their music as a whole. On the surface, Mccaughan screams like a frustrated teenager and everything's usually really fast and loud. It's punk, in fact it's pop-punk, and it's really the closest thing there ever was for providing a blueprint to Emo. The Get Up Kids would not exist without Superchunk. Neither would Saves the Day. Nor would Chris Carraba ever have come into prominence. Don't even talk about New Found Glory. Or even the Alkaline Trio. Or Fall Out Boy. Even Weezer!

But it is not fair to compare Mac to Rivers, because Rivers is interested in super-popular pop-radio-gem hits, and Mac is interested in consistent, quality albums. To get to the point, Superchunk's debut is the last album I bought by them, the last one to complete my total possession of their catalog (minus a few random b-sides and special charity compilation songs--i.e. I really want "mistakes and misfits" or whatever their newest song is called, I heard them play it twice in 2007 and it rules.). Situating their self-titled amongst No Pocky for Kitty, On the Mouth, Foolish, Incidental Music, Here's Where the Strings Come In, Indoor Living, Come Pick Me Up, Here's to Shutting Up, and Cup of Sand (not to mention Tossing Seeds, which covers most of the same period as S/T), it unfortunately comes in dead last. All the other albums are consistently better from beginning to end. That said, No Pocky for Kitty is often heralded as their essential release, and while the first 5 songs are just about perfect on that album, for me On the Mouth is their masterpiece. But I've listened to that album so many times that I think Here's Where the Strings Come In might actually have better songs on it. Foolish is usually mentioned for being "slower" than their other albums, but I really don't think that's a fair representation of it at all. Incidental Music and Cup of Sand may contain the most exciting songs by the band, and they are B-Sides. Indoor Living is very solid and so is Come Pick Me Up and if anything Here's to Shutting Up is their "different" album, and each of the three shows a steady progression of Superchunk "maturing" and sounding more like adult-contemporary than underground-punk. Regardless in 2007 they showed no signs of slowing their performance speed, even as they all turn into forty-somethings. On further review however I would have to admit that I do enjoy the very first album more than their very last album (and here is hoping that they haven't made that yet, and that I'll have to revise my post a year from now).

The first track "Sick to Move" sets the bar impossibly high not only for the album, but for the rest of Superchunk's future song catalog. Later in their career Mac would mention the formula for a Superchunk song, and 95% of their material nearly matches the model without detour. The songs that don't are notable. On S/T, "Slow" is the closest thing that DOESN'T match. On NPFK, "Tower" does not necessarily match. OTM has "Swallow That" which is definitely notable in their catalog, but this is not a survey of all the songs that don't match, and it shouldn't turn into that.

Still, "Sick to Move" is an amazing opening song for the album, and an excellent introduction to the band. It's hard to say what it's about beyond being sick to do anything, even look in the mirror.

"My Noise" is also on Tossing Seeds, but the version on the album is better and has a fuller sound.

"Let It Go" is the weirdest song on the album, definitely an anomaly for the band. It sounds almost like metal or something. I think they played it the first time I saw them live and I didn't know what it was and it didn't really affect me much except for being a little bored. This is probably the weakest song on the album.

"Swinging" is a basic Superchunk song, nothing that sets it apart and places it on the level of classic Superchunk song. "Slow" could be classic, as it is the first time they veer from their formula, and it still works pretty well.

"Slack Motherfucker" was (legend has it) written as a vituperative against a lazy co-worker at Kinko's. No one will miss its message, but it is easy to misinterpret from the other side. On the one hand, it could be taken as a song that glorifies slacking, i.e. thematic element of early 90's indie rock, pot smoking, etc. However, it is easy to see that the song is as much about the band themselves as any outside circumstance, or rather, could be taken as a mission statement. Regardless of what it means (and it means that you will always have co-workers who are lazy and who end up asking you to do all the work for them while they hide out in their little comfort zone where no one bothers them), the song is an absolute classic and deserves to be listed in the top 10 songs of the 90's (except there's no video to play on VHI Classic, so "Black Hole Sun" probably outtrumps it).

"Binding," like "Swinging" is a basic Superchunk song that is neither offensive nor particularly memorable. No slight on it, as "Down the Hall" follows. "Down the Hall," like "Sick to Move" or "Slow" is another surprisingly good song off this debut, as is its follow up, "Half a Life." "Not Tomorrow" ends the album on a very strong note, emphasizing the very immediate, very present, very prescient nature of the band's music. This is much better than Here to Shutting Up and it is probably better than Come Pick Me Up and it is a toss-up whether Indoor Living is better or not, but it cannot lay claim to being as strong an album as anything in their "blue" period (NPFK through HWTSCI). In any case all Superchunk albums are essential. They should be boxed together a la Beat Happening's catalog, and Black Flag should follow suit (only they won't because they'd rather charge $17 per album). But still, their music is not for everyone. My friend that got me into most indie rock our senior year in high school told me not to play Superchunk for him because he found them annoying. That is the biggest criticism you can make of their band. They sound like a bunch of annoying kids.

It is interesting to compare this debut with Vampire Weekend's (I am not even going to go there in terms of Funeral). In the fight between "A-Punk" vs. "Slack Motherfucker," who do you think wins? What about in terms of originality of sound? Yes, Vampire Weekend sounds relatively unique, but what did Superchunk sound like to everyone in 1989? The Ramones? The Smoking Popes, maybe? I don't know. Descendents maybe? X? Germs? The point is, they made all of those dirty, inaccesible punk bands a dot on every emo kid's radar. Someone who likes the Get Up Kids better not be an idiot and think they are the bread and wine, body and blood of indie rock, no, they would be smarter to go back further, to see who came before them, to see who succeeded where they failed, to see who lasted when they broke up, to see what was possible before the Internet and Pitchfork and the Blogosphere and MP3 Encoding changed the way music was heard forever.

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