Superchunk plays the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University Thursday, Sept. 16, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12–$16. The show is presented in conjunction with the Nasher’s new exhibit, The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.
Even if you don’t know Superchunk’s discography, you probably know “Slack Motherfucker” if you’ve ever listened to indie rock: “I’m working/ but I’m not working for you,” screeches Mac McCaughan, hanging the hook whose passive-aggressive call-to-arms became synonymous with its originating subculture and that helped lay the foundation for an honest-to-goodness DIY punk rock success story.
There’s no denying the impact that “Slack Motherfucker” had in shaping Superchunk’s career. However, to believe that the song and its sound were all the group had to offer does their body of work a grave disservice. While thousands rallied around that single’s unavoidable chorus, Superchunk used the words from another early track as their guide: “It’s my life/ it is my voice/ it is stupid/ it is my noise.”
When Superchunk released their eponymous debut in 1990, that noise wasn’t quite so unique: Like any group of college-age kids getting together to make a ruckus, the groupMac McCaughan on guitar and vocals, Laura Ballance on bass, Chuck Garrison on drums, Jack McCook on the other guitartook their cues from their favorite records. In this case, most of those records seemed to be from the mid-’80s heyday of SST Records: Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Sonic Youth. Aside from the aforementioned singles, the debut doesn’t have much to offer beyond enthusiastic tributes.
That changed quickly: The leap in quality between the debut and 1991’s No Pocky For Kitty can’t be understated. While “engineer” Steve Albini helped, the root of this improvement lies within the band’s tireless work ethic. The Pocky versions of “Seed Toss” and “Cast Iron” hit much harder than the less exacting versions offered on the Tossing Seeds singles compilation released the following year.
But Superchunk truly came into its own on the third album, 1993’s On the Mouth. With John Reis (of Drive Like Jehu fame) behind the mixing boards, and with new drummer Jon Wurster banging on stuff, Superchunk finally found their true calling: to produce off-kilter pop songs powered by a punk rock engine and an idiosyncratic lyrical mind-set. It’s what would quickly become known as indie rock. Even after countless imitators have tried to repackage the ruckus made here, most of On the Mouth packs the same punch that it did 17 years ago. The notable exception is “Swallow That,” a six-minute dirge that still seems like an unsuccessful bid to diversify their portfolio.
While it only makes sense for a group to expand its aesthetic grasp gradually, fans might not have been ready for 1994’s Foolish. The nod to Slint’s Spiderland at the start of “Like a Fool” might be coincidental, but working with that album’s producer (Brian Paulson) did signal a sea change of sorts. Tracks like “The First Part” proved the group hadn’t lost its knack for fist-pumping anthems. But Superchunk wasn’t interested in continually remaking that wheel; they wanted their songs to be more dynamic and intricate. On Foolish, the results of these endeavors are still hit-or-miss, though a beguiling, heartfelt tune like “Driveway to Driveway” showed that they were on the right path. The generous odds-and-ends compilation that they released the following year (Incidental Music) serves as a fitting cap on the group’s salad days.
That doesn’t mean Superchunk didn’t suffer growing pains. While both 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In and 1997’s Indoor Living have plenty to offer even casual fans, these albums found the group trying to split the difference between what they were and what they would become. Strings disappointingly found the group retrenching a bit, with most of the album (especially “Hyper Enough” and “Detroit Has a Skyline”) offering the same sort of manic pop-punk thrills that made the group’s name. Indoor Living saw Superchunk more willing to risk absurdity, with tracks like the theremin-drenched “Watery Hands” and the vibraphonic “Martinis On the Roof” the best results of this derring-do.
And then came 1999’s Come Pick Me Up. With notable avant-garde experimental noisenik Jim O’Rourke as producer and guest appearances by acclaimed jazz musicians like Ken Vandermark, Come Pick Me Up was delightfully atypical, an album that exchanged some of the group’s formidable power for finesse and nuance. If those warped drum sounds that kicked off “So Convinced” weren’t a sign, then the surprising falsetto employed by McCaughan were. This is where the strings really came in, as well as some saxophone and trombone. This newfound eclecticism didn’t come at the expense of what Superchunk did best.
The refinement of this nonformulaic formula on 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up (recorded with Foolish producer Brian Paulson) only suffers when compared with what it preceded, and an album that has room for the refined slide-guitar lamentations of “Phone Sex” and the unabashed punch of “Art Class” isn’t a bad one by any stretch. If this were where Superchunk called it quits, it would have been a fine place to throw in the towel.
Thankfully, they decided to come back after nine years of near-complete silence with Majesty Shredding. At first, this album might seem like a grasp at some long-gone nostalgia, with tracks like “Digging for Something” and “Learned to Surf” harkening back to the group’s simpler days. But a closer listen (preferably on headphones) shows that the group and producer Scott Solter opted to subtly infuse these songs with the sorts of embellishments that late-period Superchunk skillfully employed. The end result could very well be the best album of the band’s career. It’s a refinement of their noise, still led by McCaughan’s urgent, somehow tuneful screech.