Once upon a time, Superchunk was the little band that could. Then, they were the slightly bigger band that did. From 1991-95, they were a melodic punk turbine of flawless, in the studio, as songwriters and arrangers, and especially as a live unit. They got slightly bigger, and while their live shows were still great, burnout was in the air as early as 1996-97. They finally hung it up in 2001, save for a few shows each year.
Then, just when they were being fitted for their indie rock forefather (and mother) robes, Superchunk released the goddamn album of the year. I’ll admit that I’m biased. Superchunk was one of my favorite bands at a formative time in my life, the immediate pre-internet Paleolithic Era. By that I mean, you’re of a certain age if “flyers on telephone poles” means something to you. I’m in my 40s and am conditioned to believe that bands in their 40s aren’t supposed to be relevant, let alone producing the album of the year. But, Superchunk’s new album, Majesty Shredding, is both the title and an apt description of its contents.
Superchunk – Digging For Something
Jimmy Fallon Show
September 20, 2010
Last month, Superchunk played Jimmy Fallon’s Super Happy Fun Slide and promptly turned the studio into a big puddle of happy goo. All you have to do is watch John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, guesting here on backup vocals. He looks like he just found out he’s getting a box of orgasms for Christmas.
POGO = THE NEW BLACK
Superchunk isn’t the first band whose records, even the outright classics, ultimately take a backseat to their live shows. What makes their gigs unique is that the audience is helpless in the vortex of Pogo. I’m not talking one or two isolated pockets, I’m talking hundreds of people bouncing up and down with infectious, childlike enthusiasm throughout the show. Of course, if you were at one of their gigs and heard this, why would you react any other way?
Superchunk – Mower
March 22, 1993
Mac McCaughan + melody = gold.
Superchunk’s legacy rests on McCaughan’s gift for sugar sweet melody. And for all the beautifully arranged noise inherent in many of the Chunk’s best recordings, the songs themselves would be just as good played on a single acoustic guitar. And frankly, I’d be shocked if the origin of most Superchunk songs wasn’t simply Mac and an acoustic guitar.
Superchunk – Throwing Things (Acoustic)
Hit Self-Destruct 10″
Recorded November 4, 1992
Of course, once the acoustic foundation is laid down, McCaughan and Jim Wilbur turn those delicate melodies into a wall of face-melting guitars. What’s cool about the McCaughan/Wilbur guitar section is that it’s less about dueling solos than it is about weaving riffs and octave chords, and well-placed single-string leads, usually courtesy of the underrated McCaughan.
ONE GOOD MINUTE WILL LAST ME A WHOLE YEAR
“The First Part” is on 1994’s Foolish LP and I think it’s one of the best songs of the 1990s. It’s certainly one of the best videos, not only because Laura stretches her acting chops as a football playing badass, but we’re also blessed with early visual evidence of Jon Wurster’s wicked dance moves*. What makes the song itself remarkable is that it would be a Top 10-15 Superchunk song if it ended at the 3 minute mark. But, it’s the final 1:36 that takes it into all-timer territory.
* Thanks to longtime Adios Lounge correspondent, bon vivant, and lover of musical theater, Bill Struven. He notes that Wurster’s good foot is first on display at the 2:18 mark of the “Mower” video, which predates “The First Part” by two years. That’s quality sleuthing … and a clear cut case of the OCD.
Superchunk – The First Part (Pt 1)
The opening 2:58 … the first part of “The First Part,” if you will … is the classic Superchunk sound, part of a continuum that connects older songs like “Fishing” and “For Tension” with newbies like “Fractures In Plaster.” Basically, any song that starts with F. Like so many great Mac songs, it starts with sweet riffage, McCaughan and Wilbur trading leads throughout, via multiple layered guitar parts.
Harmonically speaking, what makes this song work … like so many Superchunk songs … is that Mac’s voice carries the melody up top, while Laura carries it down low, and in between are riffs and octave chords playing off the main melody. And of course, Wurster pushes the song forward with his usual deft drum stylings. But wait, there’s more …
Superchunk – The First Part (Pt 2)
The second part of “The First Part” encapsulates Superchunk’s next level brilliance. The song repeatedly shape-shifts, multiple octave chords riding on top of each other, all variations on the main riff. Wurster then kicks it up a notch at the :49 mark, trading punches with the guitars until the song climaxes in a riffsplosion at 1:29, then fading out. Lesser bands of the era were shittingly obvious about their use of dynamics … Hi Billy Corgan! … but Superchunk lapped these assholes with deceptive, understated dynamics and sophistication.
While Mac’s songwriting is obviously the #1 reason behind Superchunk’s formidable legacy, those great songs take off because Wurster mans the drum kit with sturdy wrists and an appropriate amount of busyness.
Superchunk – Eastern Terminal
Here’s Where The Strings Come In, 1995
This is probably my 3rd or 4th favorite song on Here’s Where The Strings Come In, it’s probably a minute too long, but it perfectly showcases Wurster’s value to the band. McCaughan knows he can go in about 40 different musical directions and Wurster will keep up with all of them. If there is a flaw in post-Strings Superchunk, it’s that too many songs failed to take advantage of JW’s drumming prowess. The singing and guitar sound on “Eastern Terminal” is classic Superchunk … in some ways, it’s this album’s “First Part” … but it’s Wurster’s Jerry Nolan/DJ Bonebrake tom rolls and subtle rhythmic accents that make this song special.
Wurster is also a hilarity machine. If he were to ever give up drumming because he was, say, hit by lightning while playing in chainmail, Wurster could still earn a healthy living as a combination game show host, Chris Elliott circa ’89 character actor, and satellite radio juggernaut. His sense of humor is a nice counterpoint to the Chunk’s serious thematic tones. In fact, there’s a certain irony that Superchunk helped propel an indie rock semi-movement that took itself a little too seriously while simultaneously featuring one of the funniest motherfuckers in the biz. You’ve seen his dancing in numerous Superchunk short forms, he cracks wise in pretty much every interview he’s ever given, and if you haven’t already done so, check out the Cup Of Sand liner notes. But, I think his comedic faculties are most fully realized in his collaborations with Tom Scharpling. Wurster’s turn as Ronald Thomas Clontle, “ultimate argument settler,” on 1999’s Rock, Rot & Rule album/book/weight loss video is positively Newhartian.
Scharpling & Wurster on David Bowie & Neil Young
The best part of this social experiment are the callers, who ask the willfully oblivious “Clontle” a variety of questions about his research, and whose tone ranges from politely disagreeable to utterly apoplectic.
She is impossibly adorable, totally punk rock, and along with Mac, a black belt pogo whisperer. And while she has called herself “the weak link” of Superchunk, it wouldn’t be the same band without her. Bottom line: Laura rocks, fools. Learn it, know it, live it.
EMBRACE OF THE 7″
“Finally, it is not about the colored wax and the ltd. ed. It is about the adrenaline rush and the conceptual greatness of the 7″ single. What can you do in three and a half minutes that will make us get up and put the needle in the groove time and again? The single must be a distillation of one’s power, the most exciting slice of noise a person can cram between the lip of the disc and the edge of the label.”–Mac McCaughan, 1991
That statement in the Tossing Seeds liner notes is as true now as it was 19 years ago. In fact, if there’s a continuum between the band in 1989 and the band now, it’s their consistent embrace of the single aesthetic: Say what you need to say in 3-4 minutes (or less) and get the fuck out.
Superchunk – Learned To Surf
Superchunk – My Noise
Welcome back Superchunk. To fully celebrate your return to relevance, here’s a video of you at your best. On stage, on fire, and full of pogo.
Superchunk – Package Thief
Crocodile Cafe, Seattle
Late ’90s/Early ’00s