Although Superchunk’s music has never been revolutionary, the steadfast and prolific North Carolina quartet has done more to foment the indie-pop revolution than nearly any other band extant, feeding its flames with a stream of releases, an incessant appetite for touring and a voracious fandom that’s seen it underwrite numerous kindred spirits on its own sturdy Merge label. Like missionaries bringing the word to the outback, Superchunk ushered in an era in which ethics and avowed self-determination were just as important as artistic productivity-a stance that’s probably influenced far more culturalists than the band’s sound. Still, that sound, at once warmly familiar and nervily fresh, bridges old-school power pop and hardcore, its energetic hooks inviting a pogo-dance resurrection even as the decidedly downbeat lyrics air singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan’s quarrels with the world.
After issuing one 1989 single under the moniker Chunk (a name already taken by a New York-based free-improv band led by Samm Bennett), the Chapel Hill foursome embarked upon a journey to the center of the post-hardcore mind, portioning out segments of incurably contagious adrena-pop the way a doting mom doles out citrus to her pack. The first official Superchunk single, 1990’s “Slack Motherfucker,” proved particularly galvanizing, what with an insurgent chorus (“I’m working…but I’m not working for you”) tethered to a trebly guitar hook powerful enough to pierce the cerebrum at a hundred paces. The song turns up again on Superchunk, where it’s easily the best track. McCaughan’s bug-eyed yelping conveys plentiful passion throughout, but other than the indie-rock call-to-arms “My Noise” (“It is my life, it is my voice, it is stupid, it is my noise”), it’s hard to deduce what all the commotion is about.
No Pocky for Kitty is significantly more fully realized, not only in the surfeit of indelible hooks — the opening notes of “Skip Steps 1 & 3” set the insistent tone — but in the emergence of McCaughan’s opaque yet curiously coercive lyric expression. Without actually saying much of anything concrete, he manages to effectively convey paranoia (in the stuttering “Cast Iron”) and romantic obsession (the brooding “Seed Toss,” which also appears, alongside a handful of Sebadoh covers, on The Freed Seed EP) — both gain a good deal of their urgency from the speedily springy playing of bassist Laura Ballance. McCaughan hasn’t refined his top-of-the-lungs shout any further, but these songs make shouting along a more viable option than administering a dose of Ritalin. The Tossing Seeds compilation confirms Superchunk’s status as the yardstick by which all post-punk singles bands must be judged. Free of the filler the foursome often (so to speak) tosses off in the breathless rush to fill its albums, it fills a room like a (baker’s) dozen roses, some thorny (like “The Breadman” and “Fishing”), some softly aromatic (like the cover of Sebadoh’s “Brand New Love”). While a handful of the tracks can also be found on attendant longplayers, Tossing Seeds is the only current place to find the band’s defining statement of purpose, “Cool,” a 1991 B-side in which Mac cops to the given that he can offer “nothing new…everything’s borrowed, everything’s used,” before pulling an about-face in order to blithely insist “We’re cooler than you, and you know it’s true.” Awesome!
The band took a full week to record On the Mouth — as opposed to its customary 48-hour sessions-and the benefits are immediately apparent. Not only does producer John “Speedo’ Reis make the most of new drummer Jon Wurster’s emphatic thumping, he brings out the best in the band’s somewhat formulaic melodic schemes, both the velocity-minded (like the cryptic “Precision Auto”) and the more rhythmically resonant (like the Ballance-carried “The Question Is How Fast”). McCaughan is mostly as ambiguous as ever in doling out his lyrics, although the pessimistic countenance he presents on “New Low” and “Untied” does leave a palpable sense of disquietude. The token self-reference-cum-state-of-the-band address is even a bit gloomy this time around: the eloquent “From the Curve” finds the singer dodging a flurry of self-doubt, bemoaning being put in a position of having “so much to answer for.” Probably Superchunk’s finest effort.
The specter of a broken relationship — specifically that of McCaughan and Ballance — looms over Foolish, from its plethora of slow, brooding songs to its grim cover (which pictures a cute little bunny inside and a caricature of a woman ignoring a hanging rabbit carcass outside). On the album’s uncharacteristically draggy opener, “Like a Fool,” McCaughan slips into a wounded falsetto to air the full extent of his psychic pain, evoking a hopelessness that resurfaces in the teed-off “Water Wings.” Oddly, the band’s harmonies have never sounded more in synch, although they tend to get a bit lost when set against the increasingly complex textures of songs like “Driveway to Driveway” and “Kicked In.” That hankering for intricacy gets the best of a few too many songs (especially “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything”), which blunts the impact of what could have been an extremely affecting album. (Driveway to Driveway proffers the album track, plus acoustic renditions of it and two older songs.)
Incidental Music, a companion piece to Tossing Seeds, compiles eighteen uniformly cool odds and ends (B-sides, split 7-inches, imports, compilation tracks, a soundtrack item and the previously unreleased “Makeout Bench”). Of particular note are the snarling “Cadmium” and an impossibly finespun cover of Magnetic Fields’ “100,000 Fireflies.”
Here’s Where the Strings Come In splits the difference between the wild and innocent Superchunk and the band grizzled by professional and personal experiences. McCaughan sounds as snottily declamatory as ever on the nose-thumbing “Hyper Enough,” and no less prone to flights of starry-eyed reverie (as evidenced by “Sunshine State”). And while the quartet has learned to marshal some of its contemporary instrumental prowess (see the twisting “Detroit Has a Skyline,” which features some nifty interplay between Mac and guitarist Jim Wilbur), they also seem to have lost the ability to paint a picture rather than use a thousand words.
Since McCaughan apparently subscribes to the adage about idle hands, he does a fair amount of solo recording in Portastatic. Generally more muted and introspective than his work with Superchunk, I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle is dominated by soft-focus melodic sketches like “Naked Pilseners” and “Beer and Chocolate Bars” (with vocals by the Bats’ Kaye Woodward) and bookended by a pair of untitled instrumentals that spotlight his rudimentary but comely trumpet playing. (“Naked Pilseners” was also released as the lead item on a Matador single with a cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Josephine” and another McCaughan original.) Slow Note From a Sinking Ship is similar in intent, but not execution: Having come into possession of some old analog synths, Mac applies them to songs like “When You Crashed,” which is highly reminiscent of ’60s French film music (or the lighter moments of Stereolab). The presence of more collaborators (like bandmate Jon Wurster and Polvo’s Ash Bowie) detracts from the intimacy a bit, but when it’s just Mac and his 8-track (as on “Pastime” and “Skinny Glasses Girl”), Slow Note feels like it was written for you alone. Scrapbook rounds up five odds and ends.
Bricks was a homebrew recording project of McCaughan’s while he was studying at Columbia in the late ’80s. (As a teen in Chapel Hill, he’d already been in trios called Slushpuppies and Wwax, both of whom are documented on belated Merge releases.) On the appropriately titled A Microphone and a Box of Dirt, it’s easy to spot the genesis of his reedy guitar technique (particularly on the Eastern-tinged “Smoking Hooch With the Flume Dude” and the oddly Beatlesque “You Shouldn’t Have Smashed Your Guitar”) as well as his enigmatic writing style: “The Girl With the Carrot Skin” will have you singing some embarrassingly silly couplets much longer than you’d probably like. An intriguing artifact for fans, and a diverting collection on its own merits.