Here’s a post from 2011 about Superchunk. Their 10th album, I Hate Music, came out this week. Here at Hymie’s we’re already sold out but we’ll have more next week.
Superchunk put out a rockin’ new album this fall, Majesty Shredding, their first in nearly a decade. They also played First Avenue, regaling the faithful with a set list drawn largely from their early 90s classics. With their personal, strangely ambiguous lyrics, Superchunk was the soundtrack to my formative years – Everybody I knew had to listen to my explanations of their grandeur, although nobody really seemed as impressed as I was. Near the end of Indoor Living, Superchunk admits just about the same – “I care about the dumbest things,” Mac repeats several times.
MY TOP TEN SUPERCHUNK LYRICS
A “best of” compilation would certainly leave out several of these tracks. A lot has already been said about Superchunk’s tight arrangements of melody and noise – These are the characteristics that make tracks like “Throwing Things” indie rock classics. Even more has been said about the often meaningless lyrics of earlier bands like REM, while Superchunk’s simple, honest songs get little consideration.
(10) You been suckin’ wind so long it makes you feel full
“Skip Steps 1 &3”
For years I thought they were singing “that second went so long”. I guess that’s where it all becomes subjective because the lyrics to most Superchunk songs are ambiguous at best. Either way the message is the same – Laura Ballance did an interview earlier this year when No Pocky for Kitty, Superchunk’s second album, was reissued, in which she explained the song. “Step one is talking about doing something. Step two is doing something. Step three is talking about what you just did.”
Breakneck speed and the passage of time are recurring Superchunk themes. “Skip Steps 1 & 3” opens No Pocky for Kitty with both in mind. Its almost like a presequel to the manic single “The Question is How Fast” from their next album. A while later Mac would sing “I wish I could have frozen time this year” (In “Silver Leaf, Snowy Tear”) but Superchunk in 1991 was in a hurry.
The chorus to the first track on their self-titled debut is “Well I thought that / Well you said that / We were gonna / So come on!” It doesn’t even matter what’s going to happen, it just needs to happen faster.
(9) When you said you were sorry you did it without blinking / You can’t pretend to not know how that hurts
Foolish is a remarkably dark record, but its not like this was a secret. Laura’s morbid painting on the cover shows a woman, presumably herself, in front of a skinned rabbit. Inside listeners find a picture of a live rabbit. There’s a back story to Foolish surrounding her breakup with bandmate Mac. The two continue to record together and also to run their joint venture Merge Records (Now one of the nation’s most successful independent labels but then a small operation) but civility seems to be an enormous struggle on Foolish, an album teeming with even more frustration and anger than their other records.
“Without Blinking” is a heartbreaking song when you give it a thoughtful listen – Foolish was the album that lost Superchunk a lot of fans for not being “hyper enough” but its also the album that endeared me to them. I suppose it could have fairly fit with the other break up albums I included in a recent post about divorce records, although I know a lot less about the back story behind this album than I do about Bob Dylan’s or Marvin Gaye’s. I guess I’ve always identified with Mac, Laura, Jon and Jim in a way I never could with dinosaur rockers and never elevated them to the same untouchably lofty status. They’re real people and it makes their real people problems none of my business.
Foolish was recorded after Superchunk left Matador Records because it had been purchased by Atlantic. As a teenager I always associated a lot of the frustration and anger in the disc to the band’s fight against the current of mainstream conglomerations like Atlantic, although songs like “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?” can’t really be anything but a fight between committed, exhausted people. Still, the chorus of “Water Wings” could rightfully be about the band’s internal conflicts or its external ones: “She pointed to a black cloud in the sky / And said that’s what happens when you’re learning to fly”.
(8) Hit self destruct / Its marked specially / It’s easy to read
I think self-destruction is the most recurring Superchunk theme. Fuck, its easy to read. Here’s the song that should have been their anthem.
(7) You’re in the car and you’re on the phone / Think you better follow that cord back home
Maybe its not an accident that the only Superchunk track issued on a major label was “Shallow End”, featured in the soundtrack to the Jerkey Boys movie. Its not a great soundtrack, and adrift in a sea of corporate alternative rock and metal, its a shame Superchunk launched themselves with this song and not something stronger. Still, the malice is far from subtle as Mac sings “I know you think you’re deep / But you should stay in the shallow end”.
I recall a few years ago that Carly Simon agreed to tell the largest donor to a charity fundraiser who she was singing about in “You’re So Vain”. Theories abound. I guess I’m more curious about the the record label promoter being slammed by Superchunk in this track.
(6) I don’t have to tell you / They’re charging admission now / But you don’t care, but you never cared
“Song for Marion Brown”
I have no idea what this song from Indoor Living is about but I am fascinated by it. If its a tribute to the avant garde saxophonist I don’t get it. Marion Brown is probably most remembered as one of the performers on John Coltrane’s Ascension, but he put out several very good Impulse! albums himself. His 1975 album, Vista, isn’t avant garde at all but really just mellow, fender rhodes-steeped 70s jazz.
I don’t think anybody’s charging admission for a look at his baby teeth.
Adding to my confusion is their use of the distinctive chords from the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” at the end of this track. Alongside another song about the music industry, “The Popular Music”, I feel Indoor Living was trying to make a statement about music and art and I never got it.
(5) And I’m sorry if the ride has been so disappointing / Because to tell you from my side / I can’t remember much
“Here’s Where the Strings Come In”
A couple Superchunk albums have a title track that came later. “Foolish” and “On the Mouth” are great Superchunk songs you can hear on Incidental Music. Here’s Where the Strings Come In has eleven great songs and this time around one of them is the title track – “Here’s where everything comes together / Either that or it all falls apart” sings Mac near the end of the group’s most successful record – Hard to say what happened because I can’t remember much about it.
Unclear recollections of yesterday’s events are a pretty reliable Superchunk theme. A video for “Driveway to Driveway” captured this recurring theme as well as a humorous take on the band’s ongoing internal conflicts. “I guess I remembered it wrong,” they say on On the Mouth‘s strongest track. “I think that my memory’s strong but whatever you say.”
(4) Don’t get uppity with me / I’ve seen things that you’ve never seen / I’ve been seeing them for years / Let me whisper in your ear
While “In A Stage Whisper” is actually performed in a mumbling, Michael Stipe-influenced whisper, the last line here is shouted. A song so nice they recorded it twice, “Cast Iron” is a punk rock come on with fantastically tight hooks. Always overshadowed by those twin classics on No Pocky for Kitty (the venerable “Seed Toss” and “Throwing Things”) this track is the heart of the only Superchunk album likely to make a critic’s list of classics.
The lyrics to “Cast Iron” are unique in the larger Superchunk canon because there’s some genuine confidence behind them rather than the typical fumbling self-depreciation. “I’ll tell you about my special friends / I only wish you were there,” is a great chorus to sing along with, whether or not we ever knew what it was about.
(3) I tried to make a list / But there was only one
“Home at Dawn”
“Home at Dawn” was originally issued on a 7″ record that came with Speed Kills, a fanzine now fairly described as obscure. It became a more well-known Superchunk track with its inclusion on their second singles compilation, Incidental Music. Its a little stepping-stone between their punk rock roots on No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth and the more expansive guitar-y sound the explored on Foolish.
So we’ve all come home at dawn at some time or another. Sometimes its at the end of a long night that was great but usually its something we’re not feeling particularly proud of.
(2) How honest can I be? / How honest can I be?
A lot of Superchunk’s best lines are repeated with characteristic intensity, as on this track from the second side of Come Pick Me Up. To be honest, I really didn’t like this song when the album came out and in fact the entire thing disappointed me. The new tracks didn’t mesh well with classics like “Sick to Move” and “Throwing Things” when they toured and the whole album seemed pompous. “Tiny Bombs” was lost on me when Superchunk toured in 1999, but somewhere years ago I found this acoustic arrangement of it that captures the lyrics more simply.
Superchunk has a history of acoustic re-recordings, most of which I’ve found disappointing. A lot of their best tracks (“Seed Toss”, “Driveway to Driveway” and “Detroit Has A Skyline Too” for instance) have been re-recorded as “sensitive acoustic tracks” but none of them have captured Superchunk’s idiosyncratic energy like this one from an in-store appearance.
The general premise of “Tiny Bombs” seems to be the same chaos theory we all learned from Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park. “Tiny bombs send bigger waves / Across your once glassy sea” sings Mac. Maybe Superchunk is coming of age and regretting the consequences of the drunken exploits of the past. Hard to say, as the song ends with the anxiously repeated phrase “How honest can I be? / How honest can I be?” – The more likely conclusion leads to greater anxiety.
(1) I’m workin’, but I’m not workin’ for you
I could write a big explanation of this song but I don’t wanna. What are you gonna do about that?