Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ten From the '90s Part Ten (1999) - Superchunk's COME PICK ME UP (Merge)

There weren’t many things that remained with me through the entirety of the 1990s, but Superchunk was one of them. As I exited my teen years and continued into that second and in some ways more difficult next wave of maturity (once arrived at adulthood, one must come to terms with it), gaining experience and perspective all the while and shedding folly and nonsense in favor of assorted cold hard realities, the music of this modest Chapel Hill NC quartet was a constant soundtrack. Every time I fell hard the band was there to ease the experience. Every time I attained a momentary high or streak of good favor, there they were, helping to accentuate those minutes and days into the permanence of memories. It may sound like blatant romanticizing, but damn it if it doesn’t feel isn’t true. Superchunk’s steady stream of albums and singles were both foreground and background music to my first serious relationships with the opposite sex, they assisted as a salve and a guide in my growth as a writer, aiding me somewhat surreptitiously in throwing off the self-doubt inherent to fluctuating levels of self-esteem (if these plain-living dudes and a chick can pull it all off so well, just why in the hell can’t I?), and the tumultuously melodic strains of their work has remained soundly in my possession up to this very second as the lingering reminder of a slowly decaying broken friendship. In addition, the band serves as a pointer to the difference between the amorphous nature of Personal Favorites and the often stark hardness of more or less canonical and essentially communally shared All Time Bests. Claiming that Superchunk is anything close to the greatest rock band in history will likely inspire mostly strange looks and cold stares, if not some outright mocking laughter, and those few in agreement are the makings of a tight, passionate posse. Some of those looks would probably come from the band members themselves. Self deprecating almost to a fault, they make no bones about their self assessment falling far short of anything even remotely resembling a big deal. If praised in person as a great or important band, the members would no doubt politely disagree (and indeed they have), deflecting the honor to maybe suggest that their overexcited booster spend a little more time listening to some other people’s records, following that up with direct recommendations. Now it takes a certain base level of ego and an at least tenuous handle on the volatile nature of that horny interior beast (and the often even crazier collective monster that can be the band ego) to release eleven full length albums worth of titanium hard and massively melodic post-hardcore contemporary rock that never ceased to evolve over roughly fifteen years. But there is a big difference between self-effacing confidence in action and the blustery arrogance of talking a lot and making people wait five years or more for an album.

Laura Ballance's artwork for the FOOLISH LP

With all this in mind, the new millennium has seen a major slowing down of Superchunkian activities, though that shouldn’t infer that the members haven’t been individually busy; vocalist/guitarist Mac McCaughan has his excellent and always evolving solo project Portastatic along with the full time job that is co-running Merge Records along with ‘chunk bassist Laura Ballance (who is hopefully keeping up with her excellent skills as a painter), and drummer Jon Wurster took on the status of an in demand free-agent sticksman, playing with a batch of worthy names and landing what looks like the permanent drum spot in the Mountain Goats. The guy also finds time for performance comedy as half of a comedy team with WFMU’s Tom Scharpling. I’ll confess to having no idea what guitarist Jim Wilbur does with his non-‘chunk time. I could maybe investigate, but I dunno. I’m sure it’s something of substance. Many things even.

Mountain Goats with Jon Wurster

The point is what was once a copious stream of Superchunk records big and small (they have three superb collections of singles, one a 2CD set) had slowed over the course of the last decade into little more than an uncertain trickle, a comp track here, a live date there, a seven inch in 2007, and in the gaps was the increasing nagging feeling that Superchunk might’ve reached the end of their fantastic ride. And if that had been the case, well how could I complain? But it turns out it wasn’t the end, for 2010 saw the release of MAJESTY SHREDDING, the twelfth LP and first of new material since ‘01s HERE’S TO SHUTTING UP. And it’s a dilly. I rocked it, am still rocking it in fact, and every time I do it makes me feel like a benevolent millionaire. But there is this small thing. It seems that the gap of activity really allowed the band time to reflect back on their collected work and then assess exactly where on that timeline they achieved their apex.

Mac playing with Portastatic

From the evidence of SHREDDING, it seems obvious the group’s perceived pinnacle was in the mid-‘90s. This is more than just supposition on my part. In at least a few interviews band members have stated that the music moved a bit too far away from its strongest elements in a desire to experiment and keep things fresh. And overall that determination is cool by me, for the mid-‘90s were the period where Superchunk did some of their most glorious throwing down, bringing pogo frenzy and shout-along choruses to stages all across the globe. I must admit however, that I ultimately don’t agree it was the locale of the bands’ best work. For me the absolute tip-top of the Superchunk spectrum is contained in the grooves of 1999’s COME PICK ME UP, a record that finds them heavily testing the boundaries of their sound with the aid of producer Jim O’Rourke, thirteen highly toiled over tracks that paint me as a bit of odd duck in ‘chunk fandom terms. For while there is surely a devoted core of band partisans that love the late period, the most vocal emoting from the bleachers seems to champion the groups’ earlier material, with special pockets of devotion for each of the bands’ first four albums, and an underlying attitude that Superchunk then began releasing discs that while too good to ignore were not up to the quality of the ’88-’94 period. Well, that’s just faulty theorizing. What began on 1995’s HERE’S WHERE THE STRINGS COME IN was effectively a restatement of purpose, a reevaluation and deepening of their songwriting dynamic coupled with the maturity of the lyrical focus, with a gradually increasing flirtation with an added instrumental palate thrown in for good measure. The writing was already on the wall with ‘94’s FOOLISH, which many people pick as their favorite Superchunk LP (and in fact it’s my pick for second), but the remodeling really began in earnest with STRINGS, and the ball was seriously ran with on ‘97’s INDOOR LIVING, which for a long time was the least of the bands’ records in my estimation (Not anymore. Suffice to say it’s a grower. The dubious honor goes these days to the first self-titled LP). If they were running with the ball on LIVING, it was with COME PICK ME UP that they found clear daylight to the end zone. Right from the processed drum opening and the keyboard effects at the ending of the brief and euphoric first track “So Convinced”, it’s clear something very different is happening with the band.

Jim O'Rourke

On their previous couple records when they integrated additional sonic elements it normally came later in the sequence and generally served as accenting; it was a fine additive but there was no denying that (at least to me) it felt a little tacked on. “So Convinced” makes it clear that they were grabbing the bull by both horns in their desire to embrace new ideas. But the choice of Jim O’Rourke as producer should’ve been a dead giveaway. This was before his most famous work with Wilco, but the guy was already a studio wizard of long standing. Across the course of the whole album, O’Rourke steadily transforms Superchunk’s established sound into previously uncharted territory while never bastardizing it. The lessons learned from The Buzzcocks (adherence to melodic riffs), Husker Du and hardcore (density, simplicity and focus) are still here, but this time they’re stretched almost to the brink in thrilling fashion. O’Rourke does so many little things that in the end add up to a wallop: on “Hello Hawk” when the guitars drop out and Mac sings the first chorus, he’s joined with a majestic accompanying whistle that’s just electrifying. This minute but powerful touch is followed up directly with a swell of strings, an additive that is conveyed to feel rather synthetic, perhaps like the work of a Mellotron but is in fact the contribution of real players Suzanne Roberts and Chicago free-improv vet Fred Lonberg-Holm. “Cursed Mirror” features a pleasantly strumming acoustic guitar darting in and out of the mix. “Pink Clouds” ends with a display of R&B-ish saxophone vamping from Windy City jazz titan Ken Vandermark that would be ridiculous of it weren’t so expertly executed. “Smarter Hearts” finds Mac’s excellent vocals multi-tracked to wonderful effect.

vampin' saxman Ken Vandermark

And all over the place O’Rourke really messes with two of the bands’ default positions, that of guitar roar and workmanlike, dead-solid bass. In contrast, much of the six-string action is occasionally thin or placed at a distance in the mix, where it attains an edgy, buzzy beauty that’s very specific to their discography (there are hints of it on HERE’S TO SHUTTING UP as well), as is Ballance’s bass playing, which feels much more focused on non-traditional melodic ideas and sonic shading in addition to her usual well employed rhythmic role. And this element helps to clarify that the overall success of the album rests not on O’Rourke’s shoulders, but should indeed be credited to Superchunk for bringing a set of such progressively realized songs to this session, and again for their willingness to document them in such a risky fashion. Whether it’s the flashes of Mac’s yearning falsetto elevating from the position of his well-seasoned rasp and bark, or his and Wilber’s guitars expertly intertwining and dueling, or the borderline scientific precision of Wurster’s drumming landing solidly between heaviness and finesse, or everyone’s contribution to the acerbic melancholy of the record’s final track “You Can Always Count On Me (In the Worst Way)”, this is simply a fabulous document, and maybe one that’s essence is ultimately nonreplicable, being one of those mixtures of chance and good fortune that frustrate attempts at recreation, the results instead falling into the diminishing rewards of formula. Lastly, a few thoughts are due regarding the record’s superb vocal/lyrical landscape. One of Superchunk’s grandest tricks was how their lyrics broached topics of very commonplace human feelings, reactions to the predominant lows and fleeting highs that life deals out, and how this gushing purge combined with the blitz of well calibrated musical motion, forming a dependable tension and release between thoughts and sound over the course of their development. The twist is that ‘chunk’s vocals were mixed largely equal to every other instrument in the band, so that while much of Mac’s shouting could be heard loud and clear, at other times, often very crucial ones, his voice was swallowed up in the abandon with the result that precise language was up for grabs. Go to the lyric sheet? Well, you get bupkus, for Superchunk doesn’t indulge in printed lyrics (and remember that for much of the ‘90s the consulting tool that is the internet was a luxury). What resulted were fans making approximate determinations as to what was being sung, and if that couldn’t be sussed out well then fuck it, just yell along and get carried up in the spirit of the whole thing. This is simultaneously a shared and personal experience (and one of the most vital attributes of small-scale rock music through its history); the listener absorbs and responds to a shared explicitness in the music and then adapts the strands of implicitness to their own ends, filling in the gaps with unique shards of individual experience. There are Superchunk lyrics that I gave up trying to decipher over fifteen years ago, replacing them not always with what I think is there, but with what I feel sounds best. And sometimes I just shout along. Rarely have I ever consulted a website in curiosity, not wanting to be disappointed. Well, in contrast to this state of affairs, COME PICK ME UP’s stanzas are for the most part very easily made out, and that fact might just be due to their rank as some of the finest lines Mac’s ever penned. Perhaps this turn of events was self-realization, the result of band discussion, or guidance from the hand of O’Rourke. Maybe it was a combination of all three. What I know for sure is when his words combine with the music, the finished whole absolutely soars. And as my listening tally settles into the triple digits, it doesn’t just sound like a favorite. It feels like the best.


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