Monday, April 27, 2009

Superchunk. Leaves in the Gutter EP (Merge, 2009)

"If I drift out into channels way too deep/ It's 'cuz I can't stand the shifting sand and shells beneath our feet/ Put your suitcase down and leave your shoes/ Gently by the door, in a puddle with your blues."

The aughts have been criminally Superchunk-deficient. With the exception of the 2007 7" "Misfits and Mistakes," the Chapel Hill indie pioneers haven't released any new material since 2001's stellar LP Here's to Shutting Up, the title of which appears, in hindsight, to have been a hint to their forthcoming silence.

But let's cut the quartet some slack: in the eight years since their last delivery, the label they founded has essentially blown up: Merge is home to two of the decade's biggest success stories, the Arcade Fire and Spoon, bands that have skyrocketed from fanboy obscurity to international acclaim. It's probably pretty tough to write and record new material when you're constantly trying to meet Win Butler's demands for more Faberge eggs and Bowie collaborations. I can only imagine.

At any rate, Superchunk -- who turn 20 this year, impossibly -- have broken their eight-year semi-silence with the Leaves in the Gutter EP, a classic good news-bad news story. The good news: this is as strong a batch of tunes as Mac McCaughan et. al. have released in a good long while. The bad news: there's only five tracks.

Despite its brevity, Leaves in the Gutter is bursting at the seams with the tried and true Superchunk sound: unceasingly hyper hooks, sweet-n-sour six string buzz, rushing rhythms, and wide-eyed melodies belted out by McCaughan in his eternally-adolescent tenor. If you're a fan, you'll be far from disappointed. And if you're (somehow, oddly; get with the program, already) not, then these tracks might just win you over, as overflowing with bright ideas and infectious energy as anything you're likely to hear. This EP once again confirms Superchunk as reigning kings of punchy, excitable indie pop, a band still capable of teaching kids decades their junior a thing or two about crafting blinding anthems and raucous verse-chorus-verse concoctions.

Opening track "Learned to Surf" might be one of the best songs Superchunk has ever recorded. Built around a patented Superchunk-style guitar line (file under: thorny), the tune chugs and charges brilliantly, as McCaughan cries out in his invigorating angry/righteous bark, "When I learned to talk/ I found words, they weren't worth dirt/ Heavy like the rocks we carry/ I stopped sinking and learned to surf!" It's straight shoutalong genius, custom-made for repeat listenings and bruised eardrums. There's an acoustic demo version included, as well, just to show that there's a fair deal of complexity underlying the brash bash-and-pop bluster. Check the fleet-fingered plucking for proof.

"Misfits and Mistakes" features neatly clipped riffage as its centerpiece, tightly wound and barbed; at the 2:45 mark, the song cracks wide open under manic drum rolls and cries of, "Put all the random pieces together!" Meanwhile, "Screw It Up" is Superchunk's summertime jam: crunchy major key chords wash up beside nicely reverbed strums and unspooling lead lines, glittering kitestring climbing ever sunwards. "Knock Knock Knock" takes no prisoners, drums and bass pinned in the red, guitars grinding away in double time, flailing solos the definition of unruly.

After nearly a decade, it's great to see Supechunk back in the saddle, especially when they're riding such an impressive (though brief) collection of new material. Leaves in the Gutter finds these Tarheels in fighting form and ready for action, a fitting memorial to 20 years of Superchunk and Merge; let's keep our fingers crossed that it's a harbinger for a similarly winning full length.