In Praise of Superchunk’s Middle Period

09/21/2010 2:33 PM |

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When Superchunk played here in the city this past weekend and I was unable to go, I instead sat on my couch and listened to their records, pretty much non-stop, in hopes that it would make me feel less guilty about missing the shows. I listened to Foolish. I listened to Here’s Where the Strings Come In. I listened to Indoor Living, and I listened to the super underrated limited edition Laughter Guns EP. I even listened to the new one, Majesty Shredding, a few times, and I realized why I don’t like it quite as much as everyone else seems to: it rocks too hard, too consistently, and in the exact same way for far too long.

Reading all the accounts of the shows and all the reviews of the record, culminating in Breihan’s 8.0 over at Pitchfork this morning, the story is always the same: that Superchunk hasn’t changed a bit, and that they’re still doing exactly what they were doing all those years ago, and that it’s refreshing and still vital and all these other good things—a collective acknowledgment that things have maybe gotten a little too fussy here in indie land since the band first stopped making records back in 2001. What I think we’re missing, though, is that Superchunk hadn’t really been the band everyone keeps saying they’ve always been since around 1993.

When they first came on the scene with their self-titled debut in 1991, it was relentlessly upbeat guitar rock at all times. It stayed that way for No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth. But starting with Foolish in 1994, and continuing all the way through to the appropriately titled Here’s to Shutting Up in 2001, they got further and further away from that sound, incorporating new textures, different tempos, and a considerably more substantial dynamic range. They took it too far, though, and they sounded relatively lifeless by the end of their initial run, with the mostly unremarkable 1-2 punch of Come Pick Me Up and Here’s to Shutting Up.

With Majesty Shredding, they’ve put an end to that progression away from where they started, and instead tried to go all the way back there. To a certain extent, in doing so they set themselves up for failure. Most of the new songs are merely adequate—straightforward rockers that are enjoyable at least in large part because it feels good that, nine years later, Superchunk didn’t go and make some shitty alt-country record or something. But the truth is, there’s no “Slack Motherfucker” here. There’s no “Seed Toss” or “Precision Auto” either. And It would have been wrong to expect there to be. In trying so hard to get back to basics, they forgot that they were also really fucking good at a lot of other stuff.

Take Foolish opener “Like a Fool,” with its hushed intro and eventual explosion—it’s heavy, yes, but it’s not fast. Take “Silverleaf and Snowy Tears” from Here’s Where the Strings Come In. Take “Unbelievable Things,” or any number of the slowed down tracks, from Indoor Living. Take “A Small Definition.” Take Come Pick Me Up standout “Hello Hawk,” even. Majesty Shredding falters because it tries, almost 20 years later, to recapture the spirit of the band’s most youthful material. It’s hard to hold it against them, of course, and it’s certainly preferable to the record we would have gotten had they simply picked up where they left off in 2001, but it still feels like they went too far in the other direction. What is it they always say? Skip steps 1 and 3?