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Superchunk - Cup of Sand

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Artist: Superchunk

Album: Cup of Sand

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 14, 2003

An Embarrassment of Riches

One of the ways to measure the greatness of a band is the quality of its throwaways. During the sequencing of Tommy, Pete Townshend had to be convinced by his record company to include “Pinball Wizard”, which he considered a B-side at best. Yo La Tengo have consistently filled their singles with alternate takes, covers, and live gems that are arguably as good, if not better, than what ends up on its “proper” albums. Will Oldham has regularly buried his best songs on obscure EPs.

Superchunk has always been one of these bands, content to put out great songs on Australian-only EPs and an endless stream of seven-inches. This has less to do with an Oldham-style perversity, but rather because the band loves singles, limited-edition releases and the other ephemera of fanatical music consumption. Not only are singles cheap (important when you’re running your own label), they represent, in the words of Superchunk’s singer Mac McCaughan: “The adrenalin rush, and the conceptual greatness of the seven-inch single: what can you do in three and a half minutes that will make us get up and put the needle in the groove time and again?” This was written in the liner notes to Tossing Seeds, Superchunk’s first singles collection from 1991. Back then, Superchunk were indie darlings, ready to take on the world with their Buzzcocks-derived, melodic punk. Another band from Seattle got there first, but just when “Slack Motherfucker”, an early Superchunk hit, threatened to pigeonhole them, they wisely took control of their own destiny, gradually changing their sound rather than bend to market demands.

McCaughan and Laura Ballance, Superchunk’s bassist, accomplished this by setting up Merge Records, a kind of warm and fuzzy version of Fugazi’s Dischord. In doing so, they established themselves as a flagship band, generating consistently good albums that managed somehow to one-up their previous efforts. Now, almost fifteen years later, the band has begun to explore slower tempos, wider instrumentation, and a more complex sonic palette, all while maintaining the immediacy of their early work.

Despite the growing sophistication of the band’s albums, Superchunk’s appeal has always been most perfectly defined by singles. In their early days, their 45s were their calling card, a steady stream of guitar-pop wonders that proved there was still life in punk’s aging frame. Hearing Superchunk for the first time can be something of a revelation: a fuzzy, often complex burst of intertwining guitars, McCaughan’s buried, emotive vocals, and a driving rhythm section. It sounds like what you’d always imagined rock should sound like, romantic and exciting, rocking and occasionally beautiful. Their brilliance has always existed in little, thrilling moments, when the band really hums right before a chorus starts, or when McCaughan’s yell is lost in a hail of guitar noise.

Cup of Sand, the band’s third singles compilation, is a good way to experience both the band’s frenzied glory, as well as its gradual shift towards a more eclectic sound. What makes Cup of Sand stand out from past singles comps is both its length (two discs), and its kaleidoscopic range. Tossing Seeds and 1995’s Incidental Music took songs from a specific period, and as such documented a particular era. The new compilation, however, not only includes material since 1995, it also collects rarities and forgotten tracks from near the band’s inception, including a punked-up cover of Adam and the Ants’ “Beat My Guest”, circa ’93. There is also some shuffling waltz, Moog-ed out pop, old-school punk, and acoustic versions of old favorites. It’s diverse, scattered, and very engaging, full of some great songs and some that are simply worth hearing if you’re a Superchunk fan.

There are also songs that are mind-blowingly great, but for whatever reason, simply weren’t kept for their respective albums. “White Noise”, left off 1999’s Come Pick Me Up, is one of the best things the band has ever written. Led by a driving piano, it’s one of their most affecting songs, a number one single in an alternate universe. It also sounds nothing like the rest of its intended album. Most bands would kill to make a song like this, at any stage in their career, let alone as a B-side for their seventh album.

Many of the other songs left off the full-lengths are full-tilt rockers, shelved because they perhaps distracted from the band’s interest in using slower tempos and a more subtle attack. For fans who long for the band’s older, wall-of-noise approach, these songs are a real treasure, assuming you haven’t already paid twenty bucks for the Japanese import. Among them are “Basement Life”, “Clover”, and “Dance Lessons” – high-intensity punk from the band’s fevered mid-period. Although the band is now thought of as well-aged indie godfathers, these songs hark back to the time when Superchunk were hot shit, playing to pogo-ing crowds, lighting up college radio, even impressing Michael Stipe. As anyone who’s seen a ’Chunk show can attest, the band in full form is as good as it gets, a driving surge of melodic cacophony, powered by a group who’s onstage communication is simply telepathic.

Just as there were some songs too rocking for the band’s newer direction, so were there experiments that proved a little too esoteric for final inclusion. “The Length of Las Ramblas”, a B-side from Here’s To Shutting Up, is an affecting, harmony-drenched synth workout, probably the only song the band has recorded without drums. Like much of Superchunk’s more recent material, it has more in common with McCaughan’s work in Portastatic, with its electronic squiggles and airy sound. Perhaps most notable of the slow songs is the acoustic version of “1,000 Pounds”, originally on Come Pick Me Up. The acoustic guitars are augmented here by gently brushed drums, vibraphone and a smattering of banjo, transforming a more standard jangle-pop tune into something entirely new. It’s not only gorgeous – it bests the original and suggests an entirely new direction which the band would partly take up on subsequent releases.

In many other fields, from writing to fine art to medicine, experience and longevity are considered among the most essential attributes to doing the job well. Unfortunately, rock music is stubbornly unable to give up the cult of youth and recognize good, exciting music wherever it might originate. While the Rolling Stones are a good example of a band who has pushed things long past their sell-by date, one thing that “indie-rock” is beginning to demonstrate is the possibility for bands to produce fresh, vital music for a long time if the conditions are right. Even Sonic Youth, who record for a major, have demonstrated that good rock music has nothing to do with a twenty-year-old screaming and everything to do with commitment and innovation. Sonic Youth have been together for nearly twenty-five years and have recently produced one of their best albums. At twenty-five years, the Who were on their third reunion tour and one member was dead. It’s important to recognize Superchunk and Merge records for the work they’ve contributed to music, on both the artistic and commercial sides. But it’s more important to recognize that the band is leading by example, pushing itself to stretch its own boundaries and come up with something new after all these years. As the abundance of great music on Cup of Sand demonstrates, that’s all that finally matters.

By Jason Dungan

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