Monday, September 20, 2010

Music Review: Superchunk - Majesty Shredding

Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the top: there’s a song on this album called “My Gap Feels Weird”. That’s the song title of the year right there, folks—signed, sealed delivered. It’s just so happens to be a great song as well, one of many such tracks on Superchunk’s first album in nine years, Majesty Shredding. Oh, and let me reiterate that in case you missed it: the name of this album is MAJESTY SHREDDING! Based on these two facts alone, it’s fairly obviously that a flood of inspiration is what brought Mac McCaughan and his long dormant crew of indie-rock lifers back to the fold of recorded music, and not any sort of requisite 90s reunion nostalgia that seems so prevalent these days (it’s all love Pavement). In fact, it’s not unlike the route their follow Chapel Hill contemporaries Polvo embarked upon last year, reemerging with a fully formed statement just about as good as anything from their most prolific and canonized period. Unlike Polvo, however, Superchunk have always basically done one thing and one thing very well: that is, blazing three-chord guitar-pop. They basically set the template, and despite a few attempts to broaden their sonic spectrum in the mid-90s (acoustic guitars!), Superchunk will always be Superchunk, and as Majesty Shredding continuously proves, that is a very good thing.

With that being said, Majesty Shredding sounds nothing like a rehash of old ideas or leftover remnants from their late 90s fadeout. Superchunk were always very indicative of their time, and like a lot of bands from the era, they never really broke up. I always got the feeling that McCaughan and eternally badass bassist Laura Ballance simply decided to put more time into building their record label—a little imprint you may have heard of called Merge—while artistically allowing McCaughan to vent some outlying ideas with Portastatic. Plus, this type of no frills melodi-pop became very unfashionable very quickly as electronic music started to get a major label push late in the millennium, while darker, more 80s influenced sounds started to permeate the underground as the aughts rolled through. So in a way, 2010 is the perfect time for a record like Majesty Shredding, as countless young bands have adopted a similar approach to that of Superchunk: succinct pop-punk stylings coupled with a youthful, infectious vigor. Not to give Nathan Williams more of a hard time than he has already subjected himself to, but this is the type of record that Mr. King of the Beach should be aspiring towards, not some snot-nosed take on the more embarrassing ends of 90s skate-punk.

Granted, not everyone can write a song as nonchalantly perfect as Majesty Shredding opener “Digging for Something”. Exploding the cones with the year’s most instantly anthemic opening couplet, McCaughan bursts forth with that dynamic, perpetually boyish whine of his, brashly announcing his band’s return to the scene: “I hear there’s a classic mess out on Old 86 / A ride out there could be the thing to get us fixed”. And not that McCaughan needs any bolstering on the vocal end of things, but here he’s joined by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, and together they send the song careening over the edge, one ridiculously infectious melodic turn tumbling over the next. It’s an unquestionably great song—one of the year’s best in fact—and the album rarely lets up from there. “Crossed Wires” is another early highlight, curbing the rhythm section but chiseling off the chorus breaks; it doesn’t sound unlike a Ted Leo jam, and if somehow wedged into The Brutalist Bricks, it could potentially be one of the standouts on the Pharmacists equally invigorating return to form. And you know what, bands just don’t barrel head-first into the hook the way Superchunk do on “Rope Light” anymore, knocking the opening verse out in exactly 23 seconds before unleashing the searing titular refrain in a series of tight melodic jabs to the throat. This is about as effective and efficient as rock music circa 2010 can get, and amazingly, never once do these guys sound like they’ve even broken a sweat.

It’d be pretty easy from here to continue breaking down individual tracks, but things would start to get rather redundant, as not a single track here drops below par. Everything is top shelf material, and I can’t imagine this genre in 2010 being much improved upon. In fact, similar across-the-board praise has unsurprisingly led many to proclaim Majesty Shredding as the single best album of the band’s career. But while I’m admittedly stubborn to disrupt the cannon, I can state pretty confidently that this is my favorite Superchunk album since at least 1993s On the Mouth (recently reissued, it just so happens, alongside the band’s 1991 classic No Pocky for Kitty), and certainly one of their most consistent and tightly executed productions yet. I’m not sure if even a couple of years ago many were exactly clamoring for new Superchunk material, but now that it’s arrived, I can’t imagine 2010 without it. [81/100] [Published 10.04.10]

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