Monday, August 8, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #160 - Superchunk – Come Pick Me Up

While I was in high school in the early-mid 1990s, my taste in popular music exploded as Nirvana’s unprecedented success ushered in a surge of “alternative music.” I grew up in the southeast and Superchunk, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, quickly became one of my favorite bands by embodying the DIY ideals of non-mainstream music like no one else in the region. In addition to Superchunk’s accomplishments as one of the best indie rock bands of its time, lead singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance also founded Merge Records in 1989. Although many predicted that Superchunk would become “the next big thing,” the band never became the next Nirvana. In 1999, years after Superchunk’s alleged shot at the big time had passed, the band teamed up with producer Jim O’Rourke to create Come Pick Me Up, an album that crowns their decade-long run of great records, finds the band eager to experiment, and finally allows them to have fun like nobody's watching.

After Superchunk established a singular take on punk-inflected indie rock with their first five albums, they began branching out with 1997’s Indoor Living. While the album certainly has some great songs, Indoor Living ultimately carries the burden of intentional and abrupt changes to a reliable formula. With the opening moments of Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk announces to listeners that they have come back for this album rejuvenated, inspired, and ready to test themselves. The first song, “So Convinced,” greets us with the delightful cacophony of a distinctive drum beat processed through distortion and effects. The song quickly breaks into an upbeat stride that builds on the band’s strengths while pushing into new territory in terms of composition, songwriting, and instrumentation. Arriving halfway through the album, “Pink Clouds” provides Come Pick Me Up with a centerpiece and showcases Superchunk’s joyfully creative explorations with producer O’Rourke. At this point the band had established a knack for ending many of their songs with dueling guitar solos from McCaughan and guitarist Jim Wilbur. On “Pink Clouds,” O’Rourke elevates this signature element of Superchunk’s sound by replacing the guitars with a saxophone and trombone and allowing the intertwining horn solos to peel off into a cathartic fervor that closes out the song on a surprising, triumphant note. A few songs later, “Tiny Bombs” demonstrates the band’s comfort with stylistic flourishes as it grows from a familiar little guitar figure into sprawling, confident march replete with sunny harmony vocals and handclaps.

Two years after Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk’s eighth album, Here’s To Shutting Up, happened to come out one week after the September 11th attacks. Both that album and the subsequent tour got lost in the aftermath of the tragedy. After that, Superchunk went on an extended, indefinite hiatus that felt, for long-time fans, like a quiet and unassuming end to a dynamic and energetic band. During this time, Merge Records blossomed into maturity under the guidance of McCaughan and Ballance as bands like Spoon and Arcade Fire reached new heights of critical and popular success. In 2010, Superchunk surprised a lot of people when they released Majesty Shredding, their first album in nearly a decade. Three years later, Superchunk followed up with their tenth album, I Hate Music. Both of these albums serve as reminders of Superchunk’s vitality and relevance while contributing notably to their catalog. Superchunk has been writing the book on independent music for over 25 years and Come Pick Me Up may well contain its most curious and captivating chapter.

-         John Parsell

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