( Merge)
Some scientists claim that there exists an internal order in all things, a balance if you will. Although time may create the illusion of disparity, if you look hard enough, it's easy to see how things tend to right themselves, falling into complex, if not invisible patterns. Using a band like Superchunk as an analogy, I'd like to juxtapose this phenomenon onto something more tangible, something like the rock music. (Fuck, I mean seriously, I'm trying to think up a novel approach to writing about a record that you have probably been listening to for a week already. There are only so many ways to describe the inevitable maturing of a band after 12 years.)

I remember a guitarist friend from high school once told me that he was thinking of becoming a brain surgeon because, as he so soberly stated, "it was easier than being a successful musician." For every band that has tried to sustain a lengthy and fruitful career, there have been a hundred who have failed miserably; attempting to coral the chimera of a life spent producing the art they embrace is never easy. Eerily, as if entrenched on a battlefield, there are those who somehow survive the exploding ego swells, struggling label woes, and the constant, seemingly ineffectual touring schedules. There are even less who manage to squeeze a career out of a hobby. Although the toll of one-hit wonders, fallen next-big-things, and humble posthumous discographies may seem like an indomitable certainty, the small list of successful, redoubtable bands who have managed to survive helps to balance the karmic weight of so many unfortunate tragedies.

For twelve years, Superchunk have been recording solid, dependable indie records, incorporating the spirits of the many bands who have stumbled (many were friends, label mates, acts on the same bills) into an arsenal that spans the obnoxious and poignant exuberance of 1990's Superchunk to the melodic fluidity of their most recent effort, Here's to Shutting Up. In crafting a polished and stylistically diverse pop record like Here's to Shutting Up (the band's eighth, not including super compilations Tossing Seeds and Incidental Music), Superchunk have found a way not only to expand and refine their sound, but also to direct a subtle eulogy toward a colossal list of defunct similarly sounding indie acts like The Archers of Loaf, Tsunami, Butterglory, Flower, Scrawl, Spent, and Verbena - most of them recording on Mac and Laura's very own Merge Records label.

Advanced word that this eighth studio effort was to be engineered by Brian Paulson prompted mass flashbacks by indie purists nationwide of Superchunk's melancholy masterpiece Foolish. And there are certainly sections that have a wonderfully classic Superchunk feel. Yet the majority of Here's to Shutting Up represents a continuation of Superchunk's progressive journey from post-adolescent Husker-Du-addicted punks toward a more resonant and introspective unit beginning with 1997's airplane-obsessed Here's Where the Strings Come In, and progressing on to their last record, the lushly orchestrated, Jim O'Rourke produced Come Pick Me Up.

The band's first single, "Late Century Dream," opens the record, setting a contemplative mid-tempo mood, established by an affecting string arrangement and marked by singer/guitarist Mac McGaughan's palpable fear that "Everybody's trying to hold onto a dream, even as they watch it rot." (Read: Lay your dreams of another No Pocky for Kitty to rest. How did we make it to 12 years?) Intelligently orchestrated, it is perhaps the best example of the more contemporary Superchunk sound - an unabashedly slower and melodic contemplative musical personality. Although not entirely deviant from past efforts, it may be the permanence of this sound (that it has become an important addition to Superchunk's repertoire) that frightens those with a predilection for the less malleable "Cast Iron" days.

The orchestral ambient delay dominating "The Animal Has Left its Shell" brings Sea and Cake to mind, floating Mac's still-boyish falsetto narrative over a melancholy landscape anchored by John Wurster's metronomic groove. Closing out the record are two more mellower, synth-driven numbers. The surprisingly long, nearly eight minute mid-tempo epic "What Do You Look Forward To" crescendos into a moment of near beauty before decomposing via the Yo La Tengo fade out. Similarly, the autumnal, whimsical "Drool Collection" closes out the album with a dense collage of thick guitar and complementing keys.

Yet just as we begin to fluff the pillows and add this record to the "Sleepytime" section of our alphabetized-by-category personal musical indexes, we realize that although old dogs can indeed learn new tricks, you can never truly take away their taste for fresh meat. Although Superchunk may have spent half of Here's to Shutting Up exploring a more cerebral and sentimental bearing, they also have plenty of time left to knock you on your ass with their trademarked hyperactive melodies and furiously paced good-natured anthems. "Rainy Streets," "Out on the Wing" and "Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)" capture not only the most powerful elements of caffeinated Superchunk classics, but remind us of why we love indie rock so much - for the unpretentious good times, the optimistic longings, the easily forgotten disappointments. It reminds us why we grieve the memories of our favorite forgotten bands and why we lovingly, occasionally, sit through the scratched and skipping records of our youth.

It is somewhere in the middle, in the distance between these two contrasting faces of the band, where Superchunk really finds its greatest success. Possibly the strongest song on the record, "Florida's On Fire," mimics the propulsive emotive push of classics like "Kicked In, "Swallow That", "Driveway to Driveway" and "Iron On." Opening with a lonely five-note intro, it breaks into vintage driving Superchunk, complete with Jim Wilbur's sailing solo and supporting, thickening violins. Shit, this is the 'Chunk. The 'Chunk to get drunk to. The 'Chunk that brings you up and down at the same instant. It is a song that represents well the tone of Here's to Shutting Up, a record perfectly capturing who Superchunk are: A band who best represent the living spirit of indie rock.

It is enough to make the ghosts of all the great dead bands rise this Halloween.

-- Steve Marchese


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