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Music Reviews
11:46 am
Thu September 5, 2013

On Its New Album, Superchunk Makes The Downtrodden Sound Upbeat

Originally published on Fri September 6, 2013 11:53 am

"I hate music, what is it worth? / Can't bring anyone back to this earth," the band Superchunk sings. It's the kind of sentiment you'd imagine someone blurting out with bitter spontaneity, but it's not really music the band hates; it's the despair and grief to which their music bears witness. Superchunk's new downbeat-but-upbeat album, I Hate Music, is dedicated to a close friend who died last year. More broadly speaking, the record explores various kinds of loss — of innocence, of youth, of friendships, of passions that struggle and sometimes fail to survive.

Superchunk formed in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1989 and became an important force in indie rock. In addition to leading the band, singer-songwriter Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance co-founded their own company, Merge Records, which became one of the most successful independent labels ever, with acts that include Arcade Fire, Spoon and The Magnetic Fields.

Throughout this album, McCaughan pushes his middle-aged adenoids into ever more plangent tones, even as the guitar work of Jim Wilbur maintains a ferocious denial of the doubt that lurks within most of the lyrics. This creates a sparky tension in the music. The voice sometimes fights against the instruments; at other times, the downer vibe triumphs.

Sometimes, they achieve a lovely unity. "What will keep us upright?" goes a line in the song "Low F." The answer, a few lines later, is love, with the typically Superchunkian afterthought, "at the risk of sounding obvious." The band needs not fret about that; obviousness is a quality Superchunk has avoided for more than 20 years now. Indeed, this is one of the few groups to have emerged from the early '90s whose work has actually improved as its members have grown older and wiser. In 2010, after a nine-year gap in its discography, Superchunk released one of its best albums, Majesty Shredding, and there are a number of superlative moments on this new one, including "Low F" and the wonderfully vivid road song "Trees of Barcelona."

The final song on I Hate Music is titled "What Can We Do," and it finds Superchunk in one of its periodic quiet moments. It has a line about the negativity and pessimism that surrounds the band, even as the pounding drums of Jon Wurster slam out a denial of those sentiments. When joined by the guitars and a soaring vocal, that drumbeat becomes a heartbeat — a sign of Superchunk's enduring health and vigor.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new band Superchunk has a new album called "I Hate Music." Superchunk formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1989 and became an important force in indie rock. In addition to leading the band, singer-songwriter Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance cofounded their own company, Merge Records, which became one of the most successful independent labels ever with acts that included Arcade Fire, Spoon and the Magnetic Fields.

Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the new Superchunk album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUPERCHUNK: (Singing) I hate music. What is it worth? Can't bring anyone back to this Earth. I'm feeling the space between all of the notes, but I got nothing else, so I guess here we go. Cram into the back of a van. Oh, yeah. All of our friends with no plan. Oh, yeah. Someone (unintelligible). What does it take to put up with me? Oh, my God.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I hate music. What is it worth? Can't bring anyone back to this Earth, says Superchunk on its new downbeat-but-upbeat album. It's the kind of sentiment you imagine someone blurting out with bitter spontaneity. It's not really music the band hates. It is, among other things, a death they're mourning, the despair and grief their music is bearing witness to.

The album is dedicated to a close friend who died last year, but more broadly speaking, "I Hate Music" wants to explore various kinds of loss: of innocence, of youth, of friendships, of passions that struggle and sometimes fail to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVERFLOW")

SUPERCHUNK: (Singing) Everything the dead don't know piles up like magazines, overflows. And everything that she won't see just swirls around, comes down and buries me. Oh. Do you like this place? Do you like this sound? Do you like this taste? Oh, yeah. You're not around. But you are still the window we are looking out, a prison and a lens and a flood and a drought. Oh, oh.

TUCKER: Throughout this album, Mac McCaughan pushes his middle-aged adenoids into ever-more plangent tones, even as the guitar work of Jim Wilbur maintains a ferocious denial of the doubt that lurks within most of the lyrics. This creates a sparky tension in the music. The voice sometimes fights against the instruments. At other times, the downer vibe triumphs. And occasionally - as on this song called "Low F" - they achieve a lovely unity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOW F")

SUPERCHUNK: (Singing) Brace me. Brace me. Stand me up and race me. You found the sun while I'm collapsing under the shade tree. Staring at the flowers painted on your floor. Well, I've been down here before. And you caught me singing, said can you meet me down at low F? And I missed the question, but you had my answer yes, yes.

TUCKER: What will keep us upright, goes a line in that Superchunk song. And the answer, a few lines later, is love, with the typically Superchunkian afterthought: at the risk of sounding obvious. The band need not fret about that. Obviousness is a quality the band has avoided for more than 20 years now. Indeed, this is one of the few bands to have emerged from the early '90s whose work has actually improved as its members have gotten older and wiser.

In 2010, after a nine-year gap in Superchunk albums, they released one of their best ever: "Majesty Shredding." And there are a number of superlative moments on this new one, including "Low F" and this wonderfully vivid road song "Trees of Barcelona."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREES OF BARCELONA")

SUPERCHUNK: (Singing) Never were a festival crowd. Indeed (unintelligible) into the early morning smiling and tired, but filing in wire. Drunk and absorbent, so happy, so happy again with that flow. (unintelligible) streets made modern. They glow and glow while children like locusts hold it in their own with the 5,000 hopes and the Chevy and the bombs. Will they carry me? They fly out behind, and the world splits our mind, flying through Barcelona.

TUCKER: The final song on "I Hate Music" is called "What Can We Do?" which finds Superchunk in one of its periodic quiet moments. It has a lyric about the negativity and pessimism that the band feels surrounding them, even as the pounding drums of Jon Wurster slam out a denial of those sentiments. When joined by the guitars and a soaring vocal, that drumbeat becomes a heartbeat, a sign of the enduring health and vigor of Superchunk.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Superchunk's new album "I Hate Music." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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