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Superchunk - No Pocky for Kitty / On the Mouth (Remastered)

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Artist: Superchunk

Album: No Pocky for Kitty / On the Mouth (Remastered)

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 17, 2010

Twenty-one years in, with a new album on the way, it seems like an appropriate time for Superchunk to reissue its early albums No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth. Twenty years is, after all, an entire generation, and Superchunk, while never changing its core aesthetic strategy, has certainly matured (that is, become more interesting) as a group. So, why not go back and examine what originally made this band great, and how those features have developed over time?

Superchunk is beloved because it — like most of the interesting bands that came out of the 1990s indie rock boom — does a particularly excellent job of balancing between genres. Pavement is a good perennial example, for what made Malkmus and Co. interesting is the particular way they blended their influences in classic rock and post-punk and everything else into a singular musical strategy. Superchunk did the same kind of thing with hardcore, power-pop and the college rock that eventually morphed into indie rock. “Balancing” or “blending” are perhaps bad terms, though, because they denote a static state, poised between two or three different ways of creating music, with micro-wavers here and there, when what these bands really do well is flit about, moment to moment from idea to idea. This is abstract, but it’s not just purple prose. The thing that makes Superchunk special isn’t that it blends pop music and punk together — any idiot can do that — but that, like Pavement’s classic rock and post-punk, the two styles never sit easily together and are always playing off against the other.

The other main thing is that, for chrissake, Superchunk can write a hook. Proof of this lies in how Mac McCaughan’s undistinguished lyric writing is transformed into something way more powerful. Superchunk’s leader is an overly-earnest (bordering on treacly — sometimes even ranging into cheesy) lyricist. This is perhaps more brusque than warranted, but it’s not an insult, as the overly-earnest style more often than not hits on a real emotional truth. The trick for him is nuance and specificity. In being specific in his emotions and the particulars of life and romance, he ends up being able to hit on wider truths than the mountain of songwriters that broadly write about relationships and, in being broad, miss the mark by a league or two. The unfortunate by-product of this strategy, though, is that, while the emotions he is articulating are nuanced and affecting, the lyrics themselves can range into silly. It’s fair to say that he is inconsistent – sometimes smart, sometimes insipid. That’s not a bad track record.

No Pocky for Kitty is where all of this started to coalesce. While still working through their hardcore influences and “Slack Motherfucker”-esque directed anthems, there is movement toward what becomes their later-period style in songs like “Sprung a Leak” and “Throwing Things.” And it only gets better on On the Mouth (“I Guess I Remembered It Wrong” and “The Only Piece That You Get” especially), which sets the stage for the true leap forward on Foolish. There’s something very specific about this line from “From the Curve”: “So much to answer for / We have so much to answer for / So sick of talking about it / Falling asleep on the floor.” The song is intentionally vague, as many of McCaughan’s early lyrics are as he’s learning to be emotionally honest, but it captures that feeling of – whether it’s merely a friend or lover – breaking-up and all-night arguments that segue their way around an apartment.

While calling McCaughan inconsistent sounds like a back-handed compliment (and perhaps is), it’s needed to really see what’s incredible about Superchunk. In McCaughan’s cheesiest or silliest moments, there is often the danger of losing the listener. Easily one of the most forced lyrics is in “The Question is How Fast: “This is not a test / It’s just an ask / And the question is how fast.” “Flawless,” “Package Thief,” even “Throwing Things,” while all being a bit guarded, still feature either silly or overly heartfelt lyrics. At his lowest points, he’s even ignorable. It takes an extremely skilled band to be able to draw the listener in and not simply keep them around through those kinds of moments; Superchunk instead infuse those moments with meaning and make them infectious.

Superchunk is simply amazing at writing instrumental and vocal hooks. And not being satisfied with one or the other, the band overloads its songs with both. Few can get away with what Superchunk does, and the fact that there are a multitude of groups that try to do it anyway shows how difficult it really is to accomplish.

By Andrew Beckerman

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