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Superchunk - Majesty Shredding

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Artist: Superchunk

Album: Majesty Shredding

Label: Merge

Review date: Sep. 14, 2010

My first listen of Superchunk’s new album in nine years, Majesty Shredding, incited a feeling best described as moral outrage, a feeling completely out of proportion with what what an indie rock album warranted. Shredding isn’t an archival recording of S.S. marching songs, so why was I so offended on a moral/aesthetic level? This first reaction is interesting to examine because I think it’s more telling than my eventual stance — I enjoy the album. Not as much as their others, and on the whole, I think it’s more disposable, less personal, more broad than their other work, but still enjoyable.

In my review of their No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth reissues, I wrote that Superchunk’s fantastic hooks — both the vocal and instrumental variety — set them apart and that Mac is an overly earnest lyric writer, a strategy that, while sometimes leading to silliness, often works because he’ll hit on real, affecting emotional truths. And what carries the band through the sillier lyrics is their incredibly ability to write a hook that not simply distracts the listeners, but that tends to infuse those silly moments with true emotion. Superchunk is essentially a band incredibly skilled at merging emotional honesty with a gut-level pop sensibility, hitting the listener on every level — lizard brain and rational consciousness.

While I like all of their albums, my real wheelhouse is Foolish to Come Pick Me Up (though I appreciate and enjoy where they were going on Here’s to Shutting Up). But in that span of albums, they took the energy and effusiveness of their earlier albums and married to a more dynamic quality. Jon Wurster’s drumming became more interesting without ever giving up its power, the hooks became more complicated without ever giving up their catchiness, and there wasn’t a reliance on power chords to drive the songs. McCaughn became comfortable opening up and being more honest, and in general, this run of albums is strong from start to finish.

When Majesty Shredding was announced, I was elated. Superchunk are one of my favorite bands for the above reasons. The musical landscape is filled with mostly mediocre songwriting, irritating and frustratingly tiresome chord progressions, and generally a background mood of tedium that lies behind Myspace and Soundcloud and Bandcamp, so I look especially to this kind of music to do something for me, to break through the logical layers of rationality, so I can say, “Oh, right, that’s what emotions are.” So in my mind, a new Superchunk album was a chance for a new or a re- articulation.

But all I did was press fast-forward, track after track. When that expectation of emotional articulation wasn’t met, it brought up that feeling of outrage, as if somehow Superchunk let me down. They did not.

That’s the problem I encountered — expectation had framed my listening experience. It’s been nine years since the last Superchunk album, and what I expected was a continuation or a response in some way to Shutting Up. That’s, generally, a fairly honest way of understanding a band or an artist — how do songs play off against each other, how do albums and side projects and the like respond to each other, i.e., what is the progression?

Nine years is a long time though, and in reality, this is more the continuation of McCaughan’s work in his solo venture Portastatic than it is a Superchunk album proper. While Wurster’s drumming is fantastic, the band’s dynamic as a whole is askew. Laura Balance and Jim Wilbur feel like they’re missing, and the balance as a whole is tipped in McCaughan’s favor: solos over hooks, bland vocal melodies designed more around the rhythm of the lyrics, the absence of interesting chord progressions and codas. This has been the problem with all the post-The Nature of Sap Portastatic albums as well. I somewhat blame McCaughan’s apparent fascination with Bruce Springsteen, though it could just be getting older, having a family or any other host of reasons.

Sap was interesting and creative, meaningful and catchy and then Summer of the Shark began a series of albums that aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but are lacking a real inspired spark. There’s always at least one dynamic song like “Sour Shores,” but then the albums tend to just be a series of fun, uninspired songs, lacking major hooks and not really being that affecting. This is essentially Majesty Shredding. Songs that don’t sound like Portastatic still feel drained of inspiration, like that band is going through the motions. I’m happy they’re still producing albums for sure, but one has to wonder why they decided, after nine years, to get back together if there wasn’t a real need driving them. Shredding feels more like a shrug and a “Why not?” than it does the result of having to make this music. Certainly, there are dynamic songs like “My Gap Feels Weird” and good hooks like “Rosemarie,” but overall, that shrug is pervasive.

By Andrew Beckerman

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No Pocky for Kitty / On the Mouth (Remastered)

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