April 3rd, 2009 11:40am
20 Years of Merge Part 3: Superchunk (Pt. I)
Of course, no Merge retrospective would be complete without paying homage to Superchunk, the band formed by Merge co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, and a band that has in many ways mirrored the label’s growth and development.
Superchunk is one of my favorite bands, if not my favorite band, if not The Perfect Band. To my ears, their music has always managed to strike an uncanny balance between melody and energy. If the basic promise of indie rock is that rock and roll can be both intelligent and emotionally resonant, Superchunk has spent two decades delivering on that promise.
Backstage at Lee’s Palace, Toronto, 1993. (via)
Ironically (but appropriately), the first Superchunk concert I attended was life-changing for its very lack of transcendence. As a music-obsessed high-schooler growing up in New York City, I had seen and heard my share of inspiring and impressive bands. But Superchunk was the first such band whose music didn’t seem out of reach to me — their songs were proficient but unerringly playable, intuitive but never obvious. They didn’t make it look easy, but they definitely made it look possible. Superchunk’s Sunday matinee performance at Brownies certainly wasn’t the first concert I left saying “I want to be in a band some day,” but it was the first (and possibly only) concert I left saying, “I can and will be in a band some day.”
MRG007Superchunk – “Slack Motherfucker” b/w “Night Creatures” 7″
Superchunk – “Slack Motherfucker” Oftentimes, a band’s earliest recordings reveal the distance between the band they want to be and the sound they actually make playing music together. On Superchunk’s website, original ‘chunk guitarist Jason McCook tells of hearing Mac McCaughan’s voice — for the first time — while the band was recording their debut 7″:
When [producer] Jerry [Key] played back the finished product, I wasn’t sure if this was a joke or not. I just remember putting my face in my hands and thinking “This can’t be for real… this ISN’T the way he sings!” After looking at Mac’s face as we listened to it and realizing he was serious, I was freaked-out to realize I was in a band supporting a singer with this cracking, pleading voice… a voice which we’ve all come to love.
The fact that Superchunk’s earliest recorded material is the work of a band who had never actually heard their singer is hilarious… and strangely, not terribly surprising. On these recordings, you can hear Mac McCaughan battling against the boyish sweetness of his own voice — forcing a degree of gruffness and grit that is, to say the least, not entirely convincing. But this whiff of underdog posturing is part of what makes “Slack Motherfucker” so charming and unforgettable. Though often seen through the kinda-revisionist lens of the slacker 90s, “Slack Motherfucker” isn’t so much a “fuck this job” song, as a “hey jerk, get off your ass and do your job” song. “Slack Motherfucker” only hints at the force and confidence that Superchunk would go on to possess, but the sound of the band working against their own limitations is no less compelling. To paraphrase, “they’re working…”