Graded on a Curve: Superchunk, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” b/w “Sunset Arcade” 7″

The A-side of “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” b/w “Sunset Arcade” finds indie cornerstone Superchunk continuing to explore the increasingly classique strain of pop-rock that’s marked their late-period work, and the flip is a fine extension of the band’s mid-‘90s thrust. They will be releasing their tenth proper LP next month, and if the sound of this 7-inch is an accurate foreshadowing of what’s in store, then I Hate Music will retain the band’s typically high standard of quality.

For a band whose appeal for well over two decades has been based upon a rather direct and non-sophisto approach to indie rocking, Superchunk’s existence holds a high number of equally rewarding facets. For starters, as the flagship band on one of the great imprints to rise (and persevere) out of the whole ‘90s indie shebang, Superchunk prospered on Merge Records through a combination of smarts and tenacity while a heap of ‘90s acts unfortunately floundered after jumping into the major label ring.

Another major aspect of the group’s personality directly relates to their doggedness in serving one of the most important functions of a highly talented yet light on the frills rock band, specifically getting out on the road and playing a heap of live shows. Throughout the ‘90s Superchunk seemed to be constantly on tour, headlining clubs, opening larger dates for bigger names and even signing on for the second stage of that Alternative Rock über-festival Lollapalooza.

Then there are the albums to consider, nine to be exact, seven of them appearing during the ‘90s and directly feeding into the intensity of Superchunk’s touring schedule during the era. And that tally of nine LPs leaves out the group’s three Clambakes volumes, a series that includes a collection of acoustic in-stores, a ’99 live set from long-serving hometown nightspot Cat’s Cradle and a performance score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 silent film A Page of Madness.

Oh, and don’t let’s forget the three compilations of Superchunk’s 7-inch tracks, covers and assorted other non-LP material. For in not overlooking those outstanding documents we are led to perhaps the quartet’s most comfortable overall facet, their assurance and occasional excellence as a singles band. Over the course of a roughly twenty-four year existence they’ve released close to forty 7-inch records with nary a dud in the bunch and a highly impressive consistency of quality across the span.

Indeed, Superchunk’s big initial boost in rep came through the 45 “Slack Motherfucker,” a two-sided beast with a terrific cover of The Flys’ “Night Creatures” on the flip. That 1990 effort was part of short but very sweet resurgence of the 7-inch as a viable contenduh in marketplace terms, with Matador, Drag City (e.g. Pavement’s “Summer Babe”), and of course Sub Pop leading the way.

Superchunk’s second single was one of the very best of the entire bunch. Unabashedly heavy, it was also as hook-filled as a competitive fisherman’s tackle box, and the relationship of loudness/abrasion to melodicism was, in the context of the time, as finely balanced as was The Kinks’ double whammy “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” or The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” a few decades earlier.

And as a musical storm was brewing (unleashed the following year by a certain Pac-NW trio) “Slack Motherfucker” was tailor made for wide exposure, all except for one thing; it couldn’t be played on radio (or even mentioned by name) without being significantly censored. However, it didn’t connect like a calculated line in the sand but rather as a finely-tuned expression of independence.

Many naturally perceived it as a self-imposed limitation, but it was ultimately much more than that, essentially setting the eventual comingling of all their facets into motion, Superchunk being one of the few (and most likeable of) bands to fully realize their ambitions (release a bunch of albums and compile a body of go-to songs that dedicated fans clamor to hear in the live setting) and without selling their asses to whomever is buying. True, this reality might be extra-musical, but it does pertain to a band whose discography has consistently brought the goods.

Actually, in the 21st century the band’s output has substantially slowed, though the quality hasn’t taken a nosedive. They’ve completed only three LPs in this new millennium, with the third I Hate Music being slated for release this August 20th. But in the last few years, Superchunk’s tidy flow of 45s has done a dandy job of refining their standing as a singles band.

Sorta kick-starting it all was 2009’s five-song “Leaves in the Gutter” EP, but then came two 7-inch discs featuring cuts from the Majesty Shredding LP, “Crossed Wires” and “Digging for Something,” both holding killer non-album b-sides. And in 2011 their take of The Misfits’ “Horror Business” landed on a split-single as covers-tribute to Lodi, NJ’s finest (“Bullet” from Coliseum comprised other side.)

Then last year the quite solid short-player “This Summer” b/w “Cruel Summer” appeared, the A-side an original, the flip a Bananarama cover that like their version of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” is no weak-kneed piss-take. Earlier this year they placed an entry in Matador’s 7-inch subscriber series Singles Going Home Alone with “I Hate History” b/w “Glue” (the flip a treatment of a tune by Boston hardcore heavyweights SS Decontrol) and also knocked-out a limited Record Store Day 45 with “Void” b/w “Faith” (two originals inspired by Faith/Void, Dischord Records’ split LP hardcore classic.)

It might seem like Superchunk is spending a lot of time thinking about the HC punk scene that helped rear them, but this is actually right in line with their MO, for they’ve been one of the best after-punk (as opposed to post-punk) units to have emerged from the realms of heavy-duty music fandom (in fact, I’d make a case for them, particularly in terms of longevity, as the non-arty, college-town bred equivalent of Sonic Youth’s record collector rock.)

Deepening this scenario is how Superchunk has always operated as a rather humble band, deflecting praise and then quickly applying it to predecessors and contemporaries. Frankly, this is fitting for a group with influences so endearingly easy to suss out. And with their new pre-album teaser single they bring this aspect of their personality right to the forefront with “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.”

The late Jackie Mittoo was a founding member of The Skatalites, the musical director at the outstanding Studio One record label, a collaborator with the great Sugar Minott, a solo artist of distinction and a true kingpin in the history of Jamaican music. Superchunk’s tune isn’t really a direct tribute to Mittoo (don’t worry, these North Carolinians have no desire to skank it up) but instead a celebration of the life-affirming qualities of music fandom that finds the band’s confident brand of pop-rocking once again displaying an especially classicist bent.

To elaborate, if it weren’t for the immediately recognizable cadence of Mac McCaughan’s voice and the rising contempo veneer of the production, the song’s intersection of power pop and guitar based new wave-ist dynamism could be easily mistaken for some obscure single waxed circa 1981 or so that’s been neatly tucked into one of those very classy retro comps of early ‘80s subterranean US rock junk.

Except a big difference is that here Mac’s not singing about girls (a familiar topic in classic power pop/new wave zone) but instead emoting over the essential life-juice that’s provided by bonding with another human being over some very fine sounds.

The lyrics begin “I hate music/what is it worth/can’t bring anyone back to this earth,” but there’s never really any doubt that Mac’s just bluffing. The band’s execution falls right into the lean, highly catchy and basically straight ahead mode that’s been their wont since rekindling activities a few years back, and they attack this almost ludicrously accessible hunk of songwriting (only it’s sheer brevity at two minutes in length is out of whack with the early ‘80s radio-ready template they’re mining here) and with such sheer enthusiasm that it might frustrate fans of the post-HC heftiness of their early ‘90s work.

And while I’ll admit to felling a little bit of disappointment over the re-activated Superchunk’s eschewal of the ambition that made Come Pick Me Up and Here’s to Shutting Up my personal picks as the their very best albums, I’m really beginning to dig this new, considerably more grounded wrinkle in their trajectory. Happily, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” is an alternate version from the one that’ll be found on the upcoming I Hate Music (which sadly doesn’t include a cover of The Mad’s Killed by Death classic of the same name), and the flip side’s “Sunset Arcade” is non-LP.

That one falls more directly into Superchunk’s well trod zone of matching soaring melodies with instrumental density, and anybody favorable to the band around the time of the Here’s Where the Strings Come In LP should be well pleased. And the collective musicianship is a strong as ever, with Jon Wurster’s crack drumming combining with Laura Ballance’s always sturdy bass work to provide both bedrock and spark while the guitars of Jim Wilber and Mac remain an outstanding combo.

It might’ve been a defining moment for the band, but listening to “Slack Motherfucker” way back when gave absolutely no inkling that Superchunk would end up at “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” nearly a quarter century later. And yet the unexpected narrative path punctuated by this very strong new single connects like the familiar voice of an old friend, the kind of pal that you’ll occasionally call up just to wax poetic about the enduring traits of some shared favorite records.

Life as a veteran rock band holds a bundle of potential snafus, but Superchunk has found way to tear it up effectively in middle-age and without a trace of embarrassment.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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