Graded on a Curve: Superchunk, “This Summer” b/w “Cruel Summer”

The “This Summer”/”Cruel Summer” 7-inch is the latest offering from classy ‘90s survivors Superchunk, and while not up to the level of the band’s finest work, that really doesn’t seem to be its intention. Instead, it’s one of the better recent examples of indie rockers gracefully adapting to middle age.

Superchunk, the enduring Chapel Hill, NC based quartet whose existence served as the impetus for the creation of Merge Records, forms one of the biggest chapters in a book that’s yet to be written, specifically a detailed documentation on the topic of ‘90s indie rock. But the Merge connection is ultimately only a portion of Superchunk’s huge relevance to said movement, with the label’s first decade taking on a life of its own through defining records from names as disparate as Polvo, The Magnetic Fields, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

No, Superchunk’s deepest importance is in how they wed classicist pop-rock songwriting to post-hardcore structures and energies and in their very no-big-dealness became very much a big deal. And clueless magazine writers were often caught guilty of misinterpreting the meaning of their early foulmouthed anthem “Slack Motherfucker,” detailing it as a celebration of calculated laziness and underachievement.

But those who loved the band already knew that one of Superchunk’s most appealing collective character traits was extra-musical, namely their tenacious work ethic; tour incessantly, write and hone songs, record albums, and then tour some more. On top of all this fruitful activity Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance somehow found time to run a label.

With Superchunk there was no detuned guitar soundscapes, no EPs of trip-hop remixes, no exhausting 79-minute compact discs detailing forays into expansive conceptual realms, no unexpected detours into exploratory Krautrock-inspired jams; in some ways the group, purveyor of quality LPs though they were, was really a “live band” in the best sense of the term, particularly early on. The albums brought familiarity and solidity, but the foursome was at their strongest when plugging in, tuning and turning up, and finally throwing down.

Indeed, in the live setting they were a sight to behold and a sound to behear; I personally witnessed them turn the small stage of Lollapalooza’s touring incarnation (locale: The Charles Town Racetrack in Wild Wonderful West Virginia) into a immense dust cloud of sweaty pogo frenzy, interlacing their set-closing behemoth “Precision Auto” with a gleeful go-for-broke cover of Minor Threat’s “Screaming at a Wall” as sung by wiry, witty drummer Jon Wurster.

Superchunk has always been a self-deprecating unit though, often deflecting well deserved praise toward other bands or records they felt were more deserving of kudos. But again, their own releases were actually quite good and occasionally even excellent expressions of their small-scale essence as documented for home use. That documentation established a laudable trajectory of growth, even if their detractors basically chose to ignore it, those naysayers naggingly underestimating this bunch as a mere retread/update of borrowed Buzzcocks and Hüsker Dü moves given a contempo indie spin.

That chapter in the book again; in terms of the great big indie bums-rush of the ‘90s, Superchunk can be portrayed as one line in the sand between those who embraced the phenomenon and those who didn’t. Listeners in favor of the group found a crew of determined and intelligent rock fans kicking out their own rip-roaring jams for the enjoyment of themselves and an audience of equals. Detractors would instead brandish the band’s name as an example of indie rock’s low expectations, or to decry its elevation of attitude over results.

By now it should be obvious on which side of the line this writer resides. If there were lessons to be learned from punk rock and the ‘80s underground bands that soldiered on in its wake, then Superchunk embodied them, mostly because the live shows, the records and the label that released them were all so worthwhile.

And their growth really was a perceptible and rewarding development; from the young fresh rawness of the initial trio of LPs, 1990’s Superchunk, ‘91’s No Pocky for Kitty and ‘93’s On the Mouth, to the palpable leap forward of ‘94’s Foolish and the two expressions of maturity and breadth that followed it, ‘95’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In and ‘97’s Indoor Living, the quartet made a admirable sonic progression.

However, I’m somewhat in the minority in considering 1999’s Come Pick Me Up and 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up as their finest works. And I don’t think it would be inaccurate to surmise that the band themselves would disagree with my qualitative assessment, based mainly on the Superchunk records to appear subsequent to that duo of underappreciated gems.

Both Here’s to Shutting Up and especially its Jim O’Rourke produced predecessor displayed the band at their most far reaching, and I find it a perplexing drag that the cumulative creativity of these efforts are far too often simply categorized as just two more LPs by Superchunk instead of accurately championed as a righteous combo-punch of shrewd and searching songs that greatly transcended the tag of indie.

Well, nearly a decade elapsed before they released another full length record (though there were occasional comp tracks, a few 7-inchs and an EP), and when Majesty Shredding appeared, it became immediately clear that Superchunk were reverting back to a more direct, less expansive period in their history. It was once again about the clarity of ungarnished melodic rock; the aim toward crafting bold advancements in depth and ambition was shifting elsewhere.

For in that hazy hiatus of the Aughts this aura of expansiveness once proffered by the ‘chunk was largely extended through Mac’s former side-project Portastatic, particularly on the excellent 2008 LP Be Still Please. Meanwhile, Wurster was drumming all over the place, most notably in The Mountain Goats and for Bob Mould, guitarist Jim Wilbur was pulling occasional spots in Portastatic, and Ballance, who occasionally gave off the vibe of a somewhat reluctant performer, concerned herself with Merge, the label having bloomed into one of our largest indie labels.

The appearance of the “This Summer”/”Cruel Summer” 7-inch finds Superchunk continuing their recent course and knocking out a pair of stray tracks en route to their next full length, and happily the results retain the standard of their work over the last decade. And to clarify, while the band has returned to a more stripped down approach, they haven’t regressed.

What’s largely gone is the wider instrumental palate (plus Mac’s falsetto) from ’99-’01, the group’s most exploratory songwriting (beginning with Foolish and culminating strongly with Here’s to Shutting Up) and the two guitar tangle of McCaughan and Wilbur at its snakiest (heard best on Come Pick Me Up). What’s here is the unfettered maturation as detailed by Superchunk’s growth expressed through a reassessment of the no-frills attack they wielded so expertly in the ’90-’94 period.

To elaborate, “This Summer” opens with Mac’s well-familiar vocal rasp delivering lyrical sentiments undeniably derived from the school of Springsteen, with the first near-minute of the tune registering very much like something from an upstart songwriter circa ’83 that’s been blown away in equal measure by The River, Marshall Crenshaw, and the glories of straight-up power pop.

Then the full band kicks in, as heavy yet adept at navigating crucial pop hooks as ever they were via On the Mouth or even Foolish (probably their best album in the equality of songs and delivery). “This Summer” is over in three and some change, and if it doesn’t equal Superchunk at their absolute best, it’s still a very worthwhile proposition.

Just as importantly, the music sounds as inspired as always. And the flip is a well rendered cover, specifically “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. For those unfamiliar with Superchunk’s modus operandi regarding the material of others, this seemingly unlikely song is no piss-take; the band has previously tackled numbers by names as diverse as Sebadoh, Bowie, The Verlaines, Government Issue, The Chills, Motorhead, Adam and the Ants, Misfits and Destiny’s Child, treating them all with the same level of respect.

“Cruel Summer” retains recognizable elements of the original, but its unabashed rock orientation is to my ears a big improvement upon the rather brittle veneer of Bananarama’s synth-pop gush. Interestingly, I can’t shake hearing a big similarity to the attempts of many early-‘80s SoCal punk acts to integrate elements of trad rock into their sounds. Difference is, those attempts nearly always sounded lousy and “Cruel Summer” sounds quite jake. It is perhaps a bit like something Agent Orange could’ve pulled off around the time of When You Least Expect It. But of course, they did not.

It’s tempting to evaluate Superchunk’s recent material as an admirable gesture for loyal fans, but the quality of the work has proven strong enough to continue roping new listeners into the fold. And with this seven-inch the trend continues.

Graded on a Curve: B

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