Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Superchunk. Here's to Shutting Up (Merge, 2001)

"Why so serious?/ When it's only your life that's at stake?/ Why so serious?/ When your life is the art that you make?"

I first heard Superchunk when most folks should first hear Superchunk: in high school. And I thought they ruled. "Slack Motherfucker" (the kind of anthem most bands would kill to write) sounded so amped up and exciting and smart. And the band sounded real young, too, with the buzzy guitars and Mac McCaughan's high-pitched yelp blaring out of the speakers in double time. Like so many great indie bands of the early 1990s, Superchunk made you want to get up off your ass and make your own songs, already. I mean, not only did they crank out killer record after killer record, but they even founded the Merge label ( And unlike Pavement, Superchunk didn't sound like you'd be too dumb to hang out with them; they'd be nice guys, funny, with great record collections and beer.

So I listened to a lot of Superchunk in high school. On the Mouth was on constant rotation, and Foolish after that. But just like me, Superchunk got older, and started to become interested in more grown-up stuff. And its sound changed accordingly. By 1995's Here's Where the Strings Come In, Superchunk had developed way beyond its early clever kids persona and turned into a pretty mature sounding bunch of indie adults. 1999's Come Pick Me Up even saw production being handled by Chicago post-rock-dude at large Jim O'Rourke, a pretty grown-up move.

But the records always stayed quality. I guess I understand when folks complain that Superchunk always sounds the same, it's just that I take "the same" to mean "consistently great." Which brings us to 2001's Here's to Shutting Up, the last proper LP Superchunk released (they haven't broken up, but the various band members have been involved in other projects, like McCaughan's Portastatic), and another solid effort. By this time, the Superchunk model had been firmly established: catchy, straightforward indie pop played with enough aggression to keep things moving. But like Come Pick Me Up before it, Here's to Shutting Up incorporates some elements -- strings, electronic programming -- that sets the record apart from run-of-the-mill guitar records.

"Late-Century Dream," with its mid-tempo pace and snakey keyboard and guitar lines, starts the record off with a sober reflection on contemporary American culture, as McCaughan sings, "Everybody's trying to make space around what they think they've got." It never sounds preachy; more resigned, even amused. "Rainy Streets" and "Out on the Wing" are classic over-caffeinated Superchunk, all flailing drums, punchy bass, and rushing hooks, while the loping strums and pedal steel on "Phone Sex" lend the track a melancholy countrypolitan feel.

But the gem of the album is without a doubt "Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)." I have no idea who this Yayoi Kusama dude/chick is, but he/she should be stoked to have such a rad jam dedicated to him/her. Quite simply, it's one of the best songs these guys have ever written. The main riff is a stuttering beauty, and the rhythm section backs it up with an insanely danceable backbeat. Add a couple face-melting guitar solos, and you've got a stone classic on your hands. Honestly, I listen to this song all the time, and each time I find the affectionate/piss-taking lyrics (about, duh, art class) pretty funny.

So, yeah, these guys have been around for a long time. And yeah, they've never really changed their sound. But I'll take well over a decade of consistent rocking, thanks. The fact that they could make a record as good as Here's to Shutting Up twelve years and seven records (not to mention loads of EPs and singles) after their debut is pretty great. Listen to the record and hear the greatness.