Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Disc 005 - Superchunk - Superchunk

The Disc: Superchunk were indie darlings for the better part of a decade. Their brand of bouncy, hard-hitting power pop features some of the catchiest hooks, most memorable lead guitar riffs, and cleverest lyrical compositions that you'll never hear on the radio. Apart from the band's notoriety as an action-packed live act and their regular schedule of releasing quality records, lead singer Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance have made considerably larger waves by founding the ubiquitous Merge Records.

If you haven't heard of Merge records, please do the following: finish this sentence, get up from the computer, go to a local record shop (if you can still find one) and pick up a copy of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Back? Good. Once you've listened to that, provided you don't want to listen to it again immediately, you can finish reading this review and Jeff Mangum can buy himself lunch.

But before all of that, Superchunk was just a little group from North Carolina whose moniker derived from a misspelling of their drummer's name in the Chapel Hill phone book. And thank goodness, because who would ever buy an album by a band called "Super Chuck"?

This is their eponymous debut album.

My Copy's Origins: This is one of the times Matt Pinfield did not steer me wrong. I saw Superchunk's "Hyper Enough" video on 120 Minutes the first time I taped it off of Mtv. I bought Here's Where the Strings Come In within a few weeks and sought out to begin a collection of all the band's releases. Superchunk was purchased sometime during the subsequent year along with its follow-up No Pocky for Kitty.

To Toss: Superchunk is a band that has accomplished much, established its name, and given hours of musical enjoyment to their fans around the world.

This is not that band.

This is that band in its infancy. No, this is half that band in its infancy. No, this is half that band in its infancy on a strict budget.

The budget constraints are mostly evident in the production quality of the recording. But, no matter; Superchunk would spend the better half of their career releasing lo-fi albums and still surviving, nay, thriving based on the distinctive sound they produced. Powerful woofers and tweeters are largely irrelevant to enjoying a Superchunk disc.

The fact that half of the band's recognizable lineup is absent from these tracks is most notable in the drumming. While Chuck Garrison shows himself capable and solid, he lacks the character of Jon Wurster, who would join the band two albums later. This is plainly evident when comparing Chuck's drum introduction for Superchunk's "Slack Motherf***er" to Jon Wurster's intro on Here's Where the Strings Come In's "Animated Airplanes over Germany."

"Slack Motherf***er"

"Animated Airplanes Over Germany"

Clearly the first is immediate and would be hard-hitting with the proper recording quality, but it lacks the originality and flavor of Wurster's signature bounce in the latter example.

As far as the band floundering in the throes of its infancy, this mostly falls on lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan. Vocally, there are a few missteps. His harmonies, for example, on the chorus of the album-opener "Sick to Move" feel improvised, as if he is finding them in the course of recording them. Mac's guitar-playing, while showing the hallmarks of the playfulness and exuberance he would later develop, is here just a notch above adequate.

But, most of all, the songwriting never quite reaches the heights and vivacity of subsequent releases. Mostly, it seems that Mac hasn't found his niche stylistically. His lyrics are much more angst-ridden than usual (as is evinced by the title of the aforementioned "Slack Motherf***er"). It's not that future-Chunk would never sound angry, but here the music matches the message to a fault. While On the Mouth's "Precision Auto" is angry, it counteracts its shouts of "Do not pass me just to slow down!" with a simple lead, chord progression and overall feel that makes you think the band is actually having fun.

That's never wholly apparent on Superchunk. Tracks like "Let It Go" and "Down the Hall" convey more attack than spectacle. What would one day be merely fireworks here is aimed straight at the listener as if its a SCUD missile. Where other, edgier bands could bolster that attack and knock their fans out with sheer power, Superchunk's onslaught just irritates, like getting a cinder from one of those firecrackers on your skin, negating the enjoyment of the colorful explosions.

Not to Toss: Despite some of the more lackluster efforts put forth on this disc, there are definite highlights. In fact, the band itself seems to have recognized which tracks on this album are of higher caliber by tending only to perform those songs in their few live performances these days. Among them is the lead track, "Sick to Move."

Here, Chuck manages to drive the intro with a solid roll on the floor tom as the rest of the band builds to the first verse. From there, the whole track steamrolls naturally through to its repeated coda. Mac's lyrics stay clever, and the first line is a great opening for the whole disc:
"Finger on my pulse,
I've got my finger in the socket.
Why build the cradle
If you don't plan to rock it?"
-"Sick to Move"
Despite being the most vitriolic in title and lyrical content, "Slack Motherf***er" is also the most focused song on the album, and the track where it most sounds like the band is having a good time. This was the band's first hit, and became an anthem for the disgruntled blue collar worker of the early 90s, with its refrain of "I'm working, but I'm not working for you!" It's eventual anti-employer status is ironic, as Mac originally wrote it as vilification for a fellow employee at Kinko's who would just sit around smoking instead of doing his job.

Though it's not as focused as "Slack Mofo," the album closer, "Not Tomorrow" features the best lead guitar work on the whole disc, and actually builds to a strong finale.

"Not Tomorrow"

On top of all of this, the lower quality recording seems to have favored the low end, which makes Laura's bass sound like a monster throughout, especially on its first entrance in "Let It Go." Who can complain about that?

The Verdict: Looking back on this review, there is a lot more text in the "To Toss" section than "Not To Toss." Most of those complaints, though, come from the fact that this is not my Superchunk. They're not yet the band I want them to be.

In preparing to write about this album, I actually listened to several of the discs that followed, and found a very distinct, very natural progression of style, quality, and musicianship to be apparent. With most bands, this is not the case. Many groups today never get the chance to develop the way Superchunk did, and if they are given the chance, they often peak too early, only to linger on pumping out tired retreads of their earlier glory.

To throw away such a promising debut as Superchunk, especially when many of those promises have since been fulfilled, would be akin to cutting baby pictures out of the family photo album because your kid wasn't "ready yet."

Superchunk stays.

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