I have written a lot of words about Superchunk. An enjoyment of this North Carolina indie rock act is one of the elements that brought the initial group of Minions together here, at EvilSponge. Everyone else has left to do other, non obsessive things, but here i am still writing.
And as of now there are five reviews of Superchunk concerts and 14 reviews of Superchunk records. And there are records that i have not reviewed, and i have seen them many more than 5 times. Even so, this is a lot to write about one band and it implies a certain fondness: no one is going to write 19 reviews of one act out of indifference or spite. So, going into this you should know that your author falls squarely into Superchunk's core demographic of listeners. That is to say: they made this record for (people like) me.
And i like it. A lot actually.
I consider there to be two periods of Superchunk: the initial period from 1989 until their hiatus in 2001 after the appropriately titled Here's To Shutting Up, and the second after their (surprising to me) reunion in 2010 for Majesty Shredding. We are four albums into the second period of the band.
This period has been defined by Superchunk using their longevity and status to collaborate with many other musicians on each of the records. And by collaborate i mean, "they have had lots of famous backup singers on songs". I have seen criticism that perhaps these guest appearances are not well utilized, and in general i have to agree. I mean, they had the great Stephen Merritt just repeat the word "Erasure" on the chorus of that song... What's the point? Let him use that deep and mopey voice for something great!
Well, on Wild Loneliness the band appears to have taken a slightly different tactic. Sure, Sharon von Etten and Mike Mills add some backing vocals that might or might not be noticeable, but the band also lets Owen Pallet (aka, Final Fantasy) add some strings to two tracks here, and Kelly Pratt (who has done work for tons of other bands) arrange and play horns on one track. This adds some depth to the record, and I think they did a good job with these additions.
That said, yes, this is the Superchunk record where the strings, literally, come in. This is not simply a pop-punk record, it is the band once again experimenting with their framework and pushing the boundaries a little. And i have another shocking change. Are you ready?
On several of the songs on this record Mac and/or Jim play acoustic guitar.
I know: what the hells?
We live in a post-apocalypse world. There are acoustic guitars on a Superchunk album.
The record actually starts off with acoustic guitars, and then layers of strings, and then percussion that is not Jon Wurster's thudding drums, but tapped drum stick and shaking egg. The tune is City of the Dead, which moves at a middling pace and features a massive upswell of string on the chorus. I think that Pallet does a good job with the strings here, even layering them under a fun Jim Wilbur electric guitar solo. The song sets the pace for this record: this is Superchunk (griding electric guitar, thudding drums, and high-pitched vocals) but different: strings, acoustics. I also like that at one point Mac sings, "The kids are scarred but smarter", which is of course a nice reference to Atlanta's Drivin N Cryin.
Endless Summer starts off like a Superchunk song should: guitars, drums, bass, Mac singing. It's a bouncy pop tune of the type that Superchunk have been cranking out for thirty plus years. That said, it kind of reminds me of Me & You & Jackie Mittoo. The pace, the guitar parts, everything about it screams "this is the most Superchunk song on the record". That said, it's fun and i like it.
The guitar part on On the Floor reminds me slightly of Song for Marion Brown in that sort of wobbly picked manner. But this is a nice tune, with a fun piano part courtesy of Franklin Bruno, who Superchunk know from his time in The Mountain Goats.
Acoustic and electric guitars slide against each other on Highly Suspect, which also features some great horns from Kelly Pratt. I like the way the electric guitar is a rumble, a roar under the verses of the songs, then picks along on the choruses. The horns sound great here, and i never thought i would say that i liked horns on a Superchunk song after their (mis)use on the album that shall not be named... This is a lot of fun and i would love to see them play it live with someone wailing on a trumpet.
Set It Aside has a swaying sort of rhythm to it, as Mac croons along and eventually even adds some piano. This is a nice fun, light song.
Pallet's strings are back on This Night a song which features a bass riff and beat that reminds me of Martini's on the Roof. (I feel i should offer a disclaimer here that i spent a few weeks before this record came out listening to 1997's Indoor Living, so it was really fresh in my head. Maybe that is why i hear echoes of that record.) It's fun song and features an acoustic guitar solo, nice backing vocals by Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell, as well as a great Mac lyric: "Time will grind you down, and time won't let you mess around". Yeah Mac, i feel you: the past few years have seemed long...
The title track starts with a steady Wurster beat, acoustic strumming, and the electric guitar in low slow riffs. It bounces along nicely and Wye Oak's Andy Stack takes the song to the 1980s by adding a saxophone solo.
The chorus of Refracting is "And I try not to judge / But it's so fun and so distracting / I should direct my energy somewhere good / But it keeps refracting" and something about the way Mac stretches out the word "refracting" seems really awkward to me and throws me off. Otherwise, this is a thunking Superchunk song that grinds along nicely while also seeming kind of generic for them. I would same the same thing for the mid-tempoed Connection. These two songs are okay, but not the best on this record. They are Superchunk doing exactly what everyone expects them to do.
Then Superchunk end their twelfth record with If You're Not Dark. Sharon Von Etten sings the chorus with Mac: "And if you're not dark / At least in some little part / What are you on / And can I have some? / Oh, if you're not dark / I don't believe it". Just... wow. That is why i love this band. That bit, that right there, that is something that has been simmering under my consciousness these past few months as my employer re-opens offices and i move back to sitting in a cubicle part time and people start doing post-pandemic activities. I see these people who act like the last few years were nothing big, just a slight blip, and i wonder what the hell is wrong with those people? And Mac put that vague feeling into words and into a song. Von Etten's voice is a great accompaniment to Mac, and the band grinds along nicely. A heck of a tune.
After writing this review i had a thought: horns and strings are well used here while they were not on the album which shall not be named. In some ways, Superchunk are trying to do similar things on both records -- push past the guitar band framework -- but it works here and didnít there. Mac is credited with producing the record, whereas that other record was produced by Jim O'Rourke. O'Rourke was an outsider (i think at the time he was a member of Sonic Youth) brought in to offer a different perspective. Instead he let Superchunk do their thing then drowned them out with other layers at some points. Here, Mac and the band did their thing, and then in a few places brought in someone to add something. Totally different result based on a different starting point Ė one organic and the other very artificial. I guess what I am trying to say here is that listening to Wild Loneliness has helped me understand why Come Pick Me Up failed.
My overall commentary for Wild Loneliness is this: Superchunk have grown a lot in 30 plus years. Yes, not everything on this album is totally fresh and new, but they keep having good ideas and trying new things and making damned catchy songs. And i, for one, will continue to listen and pogo in my head for as long as they keep doing this.