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Superchunk: Indie Rock Legends
Chapel Hill, North Carolina emerged as a breeding ground for talented indie rock bands in the early 1990's. The music of Superchunk has stood the test of time
What is indie rock? Is “indie” a blanket term for alternative rock and pop acts that can’t be classified as rock and roll, punk rock, or alternative rock without a catchy genre enhancer? Is it tight jeans and three piece drum kits? Does it require a synth player? Does it have to even be independently recorded, produced, and distributed anymore? I believe that over the past thirty years, it has evolved into a term of endearment. It is a title of inclusion that is used to stake a claim. It is a hip term. It is a flag of antagonism toward mainstream acts that share characteristics in sound but not ethos. Originally, indie music combined the ethos of do-it-yourself punk rock with the less aggressive independently recorded sounds of early alternative rock and new wave music. Sort of a punk influenced type of pop. Wherever it winds up, indie rock, and its initial coinage, was born in The UK and raised Simultaneously on UK and US college radio. Bands like REM and The Smiths are good early indie rock examples. As time went on, more distortion heavy noise rock bands like The Melvins, and melodically accessible punk bands like Husker Du, acid rock bands like The Butthole Surfers, and poppy experimental bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays began to fit the ever expanding criteria. In my opinion (an opinion that I’m sure is shared by many) indie rock hit its heyday in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when college radio became the go to source for fans to discover underground bands that eluded mainstream stations and Billboard singles and album charts. A blend of sound obscured, guitar driven alternative rock began to be the go to sound of choice for labels such as Matador Records, Touch and Go Records, and finally Merge Records from the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The Chapel Hill music scene displayed a pure form of the second wave of indie music. When bands like Archers of Loaf began to hit the stage at The Cat’s Cradle, and the upstart genre would never be the same. The embodiment of indie came alive in North Carolina, and the evolution of the modern form kicked off with a bang. Nowadays, an overwhelming majority of contemporary indie bands will cite the premier Chapel Hill band Superchunk as one of their primary influences.
Punk rock has The Ramones, metal has Black Sabbath, grunge has Nirvana, and indie rock has Superchunk. If there is one band that one needs to know as a prerequisite for exploring the indie genre, Superchunk is it. From there, new fans can retrace the genre to its roots or chronicle its evolution. As a matter of fact, there is a big four that is equivalent to the early nineties grunge movement. The big four of Seattle grunge bands are unanimously agreed upon. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains spearheaded the push to the mainstream. Although less widely known in comparison to the Seattle movement, the early nineties indie movement had Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Guided by Voices, and Pavement. Any one of these four bands could accurately be used to define the indie sound, but Superchunk’s blend of punk charged guitars, high octane live performances, catchy vocal hooks, and self- sustainability place them at the forefront. They created their own sound while never straying too far from the preconceived alternative punk format. Superchunk left out the experimental nature of their predecessors and stripped the sound down to its alternative punk roots.
Formed in 1989 by guitarist/vocalist Mac McCaughan, rhythm guitarist Jack McCook (only played with the band through their first album), bassist Laura Ballance, and drummer Chuck (Chunk) Garrison, Superchunk, or “Chunk” as they were known early on, released their first three albums with Matador records. All three would later be re-mastered and re-released by Merge.
Superchunk’s 1990 self-titled album is the band’s most straightforwardly punk rock album. There’s an almost Naked Raygun feel to it. Songs like “Sick to Move,” “Slack Motherfucker” (Mac’s personal anti nine to five anthem), and “Let it Go” are stand out tracks. The recording is relatively low fidelity, and the vocals are somewhat obscured by the distorted guitars. The guitar leads that Mac would eventually be known for aren’t yet showcased on this album. His guitar proficiency is obvious indeed, but the recording quality has that garage band sound that doesn’t lend well to individual tracking. It sounds like a live recording.
The 1991 album “No Pocky for Kitty” is, in my own opinion, Superchunk’s first great album. The punk aspect is still present, but the leads and vocals are more clearly recorded. Mac’s soaring solos and catchy leads are further complimented by new guitarist Jim Wilbur’s strong and precise rhythm guitar playing. Although this album is solid from the opening track “Skip Steps 1 and 3” to its last track “Throwing Things,” there are a few notable tracks. “Seed Toss,” “Cast Iron,” and “Sprung a Leak” are long- time fan favorites. This album would be Chuck Garrison’s last with the band.
1993’s “On the Mouth” introduced fans to the current line-up of the band. The drum playing of Jon Wurster slightly deviates from Garrison. Where Garrison was more undoubtedly a “punk” drummer, Wurster introduced a more methodical style. His fills, rolls, and symbol hits were perfect for the direction that the band was heading in. The structure of the songs on “On the Mouth” seem to be more meticulously written. The live garage sound gave way to stronger mixing and attention to production quality. The indie appeal thus is redefined. A band’s record quality can mature while still being independently recorded and produced. It sounds tighter and more professional. “On the Mouth” is the band’s last indie punk offering. Subsequent albums would drift more toward alternative and the modern definition of indie rock, which is a little emo, a little poppy, a bit experimental, a bit rock and roll, and a smidge punk rock. The now classic indie recipe as it were. The amazing title track “On the Mouth” is absent from the album. It was included on the “Mower” single. Standout album tracks include “Precision Auto,” “For Tension,” “I Guess I Remembered it Wrong,” and “Package Thief.”
The band’s fourth studio album “Foolish” is a somber album. Mac’s hyperactive glee gives way to reflection and introspective lyrics although some faster more upbeat songs are sprinkled in. This is generally attributed to Mac and Laura’s break-up. The well written songs are this albums strong point. The context and substance of the material is more thought provoking. A break up inspired album resonates strongly with listeners. While never sappy or cliché, “Foolish” scores the aftermath of a reluctant end to a romantic relationship. Poignant lyrics and slower tempos propel the band into uncharted territory. Their following album displays a return to form, but takes with it some of the lessons learned while writing “Foolish.” My personal favorite tracks from this album are “Water Wings” and “Driveway to Driveway”.
“Here’s where the Strings come in” is Superchunk’s fourth album and widely considered to be their strongest offering. Released in 1995, this album is a triumphant display of musicianship. The album truly borders on brilliant. The opening track “Hyper Enough” seems to be Mac’s response to the previous album’s reviews as a soft album. As for stand out tracks, listen to the entire album. This is the band at its peak. This is my opinion, of course. Many fans would agree, while I’m sure that many fans won’t. People like music for different reasons, and this album, in particular, just speaks to me.
Superchunk released three more albums, a collection of B-sides and rarities, and a few live records between 1997 and 2004. The follow-up to “Here’s where The Strings come in” is 1997’s “Indoor Living.” “Indoor Living” has flashes of brilliance, but for the first time in the band’s career, it also has a couple of sleepers. At points, the album sounds over-produced. Up until this point, Superchunk had always managed to progress musically while holding on to their raw edge. It almost feels like this could have been the band’s last release. It’s missing some of the exuberance that had made the band great to begin with. I still love some of the songs. “Martinis on the Roof” is a great song. “Nu Bruises” is an upbeat punkish tune, but the album as a whole leaves me with mixed emotions. I love most of it, while I'm indifferent toward some of it. The two following albums are good albums with memorable tunes. 1999’s “Come Pick Me Up” is a more cohesive and fluid album than its predecessor. Mac’s guitar playing is fantastic, as is every musical contribution by the band, but a change in Mac’s vocal style never completely appealed to me. The vocals seem more controlled, as though he’d accepted the limitations of his voice. Part of his lyrical charm had always been his strained yells. Sometimes he hit the right notes and sometimes he came close, but it was always fun to listen. It was raw and unrefined. “Come Pick Me Up” is more controlled and refined. “Hello Hawk” and “Good Dreams” are a few noteworthy songs. 2001’S “Here’s to Shutting Up” somewhat deviates from the bands alt punk origins. Synths are introduced, and the songs have a more layered aesthetic. “Late-Century Dream” and “Art Class” are definitely worth a listen. After “Cup of Sand,” which is a B-sides and rarities collection and a three part live album series, Superchunk was somewhat dormant for the most part of the last decade. Mac split his time between running Merge Records with Laura and writing and recording for his side project Portastatic with Jim, and Jon explored other musical opportunities (check out his jam session with Dave Grohl, Jason Narducy, and Husker Du’s Bob Mould on youtube).
Then in 2007, Superchunk released the “Leaves in The Gutter EP”. This new original material seemed to be a return to form for the band. The songs are enthusiastic and they leave fans wanting for more. 2010’s “Majesty Shredding” didn’t disappoint. It was a breath of fresh air. Superchunk was back and seemingly rejuvenated after a nine year gap between full length albums. This album recaptures their raw edge and flaunts their musical maturity simultaneously. The album was well received and received a healthy amount of critical acclaim. This solid album is highlighted by songs like “Learned to Surf” and “Digging for Something.” “Majesty Shredding” pays respect to the entire evolution of the band. They incorporate all of their strong points into one album. They’ve moved on without forgetting the past. It’s a special thing for a fan to experience a band that has come full circle.
So, as indie rock continues to be redefined, Superchunk will be there to continually carve a deep place into a genre they helped pioneer. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting some scrappy and enthusiastic new material.