Most regular readers of this blog probably think I am nothing more than a fat, drunken imbecile who only likes drunken punk rock. And that isn’t far from the truth. But, my musical awakening in Washington DC was not just ushered in by Minor Threat but also by the insatiable pop rock of Unrest. In fact, I was more a fan of Teen Beat than Dischord in my formidable years and it probably wasn’t until my mid twenties, when I first became a home owner, that I really started a deeper dive into punk rock. Sure I had Black Flag, the Misfits and even by then a good part of the Dischord catalog pre-1987 to my name. But I have Teen Beat records that no one should own. Like the Romania 7″ or Tel Aviv’s first album. Not that they are bad, but they are the epitome of 90’s indie rock that put kids on a path of destruction.
However, especially over the last few years, indie rock, that is, the lighter side of independent music has vastly fallen off the radar. I’ve explored Metal and Hip Hop more and more and tried to find more far out sounds. The straight forward, relatively soft sounds that indie pop had to offer started to feel boring. After Unrest and then the short-lived Air Miami I started looking at other local bands to fill my ears with. Indie rock just kind of started to suck.
So what is this little rant all about. Well this week I purchased three records by some indie rock staples who are, in one way or another still churning them out. Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian kicked out a pink covered missive, Indie Rock Network Gods Superchunk recently returned to the recorded spectrum and former Sleater-Kinney wailer, both vocally and on the guitar, Corin Tucker produced her first solo album. And, as you will soon read, the results are mixed. Part of me feels really good to be in the familiar, but part of me recognizes that the over saturated market place has created a different landscape for these now grown kids to exist in. There is more competition now to get heard and more importantly to get those snot nosed fucking kids to actually buy the music. A decade ago, these three bands would easily be the highlights of the year and the concept of them all having albums out so close to each other would have been mind numbing. But now the founders, ground breakers and forbearers of not just a musical style, but a whole way of life and ethics are unfortunately part of an ocean of shit. Without further ado, strap down, grab a mountain dew, kiss your children, cuz we are gonna fucking go for it
I first read about Superchunk in Spin Magazine, one springish, summer day in my parents suburban, Northern Virginia Home. Instantly their North Carolina based Merge Records reminded me of my beloved Teen Beat and the description of their then released album Foolish was tantalizing. I headed to the local Kemp Mill records for a purchase of said record (I also bought a Government Issue compilation that sounded like shit) as soon as possible. The opening of that album turned my brain inside out. It was both punk rock and pop luscious. Aggressive but sexy. The album, at it’s most basic level, kicked serious ass. My friends and I traded copies of it and that summer we saw them at the Black Cat the night before we were heading to Lolapalooza and they DESTROYED. Laura Balance played bass like an angry Kim Colleta and bounced around with equal abandon. Guitarist Jim Wilbur was a fucking rock star, fingers punching holes in the fret boards as he laid down sweet guitar licks. We all pogoed like well-behaved white people should, but it was sweaty and fun none the less and good not top any of the bands we saw the next night, save for their own performance on the side stage that we immediately caught. Superchunk were fast, smart, sassy, witty and could play really, really well, which was sometimes regarded as novelty back then. They were musicians who actually knew what they were doing instead of making it up as they went along like so many of their peers.
A few years later, I kinda fell off the bandwagon. None of the albums I heard that preceded or followed Foolish lived up to those feelings. Maybe it was a time and a place, maybe it was bands that came out in the wake of that record, clearly inspired by The ‘Chunk with their own spin that kept my attentions diverted. But by 1997, a slew of singles, compilations and a record I wasn’t totally comfortable with (Here’s Where the Strings Come In has some of their best songs, but also some of their most overwrought in my opinion) I had moved past the band.
So you know, it’s been a while since I’ve even really thought about Superchunk. And I am not gonna lie, I’m still left a little bitter about the whole thing. This is why, and this is criticism you probably will not read anywhere else, the mastering on this record absolutely sucks. Now I know what your thinking, “Dude what the fuck is mastering? Either the songs are good or they aren’t!” and I will address both those points in a second. Mastering is the balance of the sound on an album. It dictates the levels of sound waves, the highs, the lows and all in between. It also helps determine the volume of all of these things. The hotter (or higher) the mastering job, the louder everything gets. The louder everything gets the more detail you lose. So, for me, a not really that learned listener, this shit is too hot. If I have to turn down my stereo to listen to a Superchunk album, somebody fucked up. Pig Destroyer, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse they are not. They are Superchunk, with driving, upbeat, high tempo songs that are supposed to be pleasant to listen to.
Now, what does this have to do with the music? Everything! Part of Superchunk’s appeal is the nuance of the music. It’s not just blistering, blazing and barking. There is a finesse, a sexiness to it all. Hormones are raging for sure, but the music has always had a classy way of presenting itself. When everything is so fucking loud, that nuance is gone. The parts that make Superchunk the predecessors of modern independent music get buried in the mix.
There are moments that reign through. I miss Mac McCaughan’s warble, his vocals have definitely matured or aged, depending on if these performances are intentional or not, but he’s got the strength to carry another performance all the way through. And some of the songs on here are just as great as some of the earliest material. “My Gap Feels Weird” which has Mac twitching his voice out on the chorus is probably one of my favorite songs by the group now. “Learned to Surf” features some of his classic lyrics and is a solid stomper. And of course “Winter Games” is by the book Superchunk and showcases a band that has not missed a beat.
There is nothing musically about Majesty Shredding that indicates Superchunk are trying to reassert themselves. There is no left field collaborations, overshadowing experimentation with drum machines, or letting of the drummer sing to try to catch people’s attentions or break out of the mold. Superchunk knows what they do well and they wrote songs that show that. However, I can’t help but think that the post production decisions were not in part influenced by a changing marketplace. Something about this feels like the band is trying to seek a new audience, burning up the space to give the kids what their fucked up ears are used to. The tragedy in this is that the kids don’t buy records, but us old folks still do. And our old ears, we can’t take this shitty mastering. So yea, we may buy the album, but we won’t be singing along when you come through town.
Belle and Sebastian
Write About Love
Admittedly, I am not the world’s biggest Belle and Sebastian fan. In fact, this is the first album of theirs that I have purchased in the new section since their breakthrough smash Boy With the Arab Strap (see, I wasn’t kidding when I was talking earlier about breaking up with the indie scene). Through friends and the used store I have collected their complete works, because I know a lot of people who love the fuck out of this band. Belle and Sebastian are just one of those bands that well-mannered, middle of the road, boring white people love. I think this is because they are non-threatening, non-controversial and, most importantly, totally brilliant.
Over the last three years, my appreciation for the band has increased. High Profile exposure from the film Juno and being introduced to The Life Pursuit certainly increased my enjoyment of this band and made me reconsider their music as more than weirdo, slacker rock with a cooky singer. You know, sometimes the onslaught of metal, grinding hip hop and sloppy punk rock is just too much, so chilling out to some Scottsmen and women.
Well, now they have a new album out and frankly Write About Love should be called How to Be A Dirty Hippie in Eleven Easy Steps because they really lay on the 70’s sugar pop on this one. They do it to great effect and frankly, this album is a grower and now a shower. At first I thought it was pappy crap. But it’s the details that matter most of all. Sure, Belle and Sebastian will probably never be the quirky indie pop band they used to be. It seems they are saturated in swanky organs and up strummed guitars lifting up the high registers. But man, they do it well. And let’s face it, Stuart Murdoch is a great fucking singer.
But there are some road blocks on this album. First track, “I Didn’t See it Coming” is totally sung by the wrong member. I am not insinuating that Sarah Martin can’t sing and this is not some bash against her. It’s just such an obvious and classic Murdoch song and I think he would have delivered a stronger performance here. A switching of roles would have done this great. Then, seriously, Norah Jones guys? She’s boring and lifeless and kills some great lyrics on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John. In fact, that’s where I would have put Sarah Martin had anyone had the decency to produce this album. But nobody did. And there is just something off about “I’m Not Living In the Real World”. It’s just too swanky, mid 70’s budget movie. That song just bugs the fuck out of me. I like the break down riff in it, but I can’t take the Monkee’s styled vocals. Ungh.
And it’s precisely these decisions that I doubt. The guest vocals of Carey Mulligan on the title track seems like a natural, fitting collaboration. I don’t doubt that Murdoch and Co didn’t immediately think of Jones for the album, but it comes off feeling forced. And some of the more straight ahead influences from days past leave a little to be desired. I’d prefer more of the Belle and Sebastian stamp all together. But perhaps that’s the whole point. How long can a band exist at a certain level and still make a living. Putting out an album after a five-year hiatus is a daunting task, no matter how well-loved you are and can be a bold career move. Belle and Sebastian have never been a dangerous band, but even for them Write About Love feels just a bit too safe and familiar in some places, and too forced in all the wrong places.
The Corin Tucker Band
Kill Rock Stars
I’m not even totally sure what to make of this album to be quite honest with you. When figure heads from bands go solo it ends one of two ways, usually. Either their true genius shines through and it’s determined that the band they were in truly was holding them back. I can’t cite a specific example of this because I don’t think it happens that often. The other road is that you find out, that lead singer or whatever you thought was so amazing was not as good as the sum of the parts behind them. Kele from Bloc Party released a luke-warm solo album this year. It has all the elements about Kele that I like, but it misses all the other great things that go on to the left, right and behind him that I like. Travis Morrison struck out on his own, and while we got his same sensibilities and playfulness, he never found people to match the power of the other guys in the band. Sure he was the principle, but no one plays bass like Eric Axelson on this planet.
So Corin Tucker’s first effort three years out of Sleater Kinney is an interesting endeavor. Now, I’m not gonna lie, I just got this album last night. I had to drive to my old house to pick up my misdelivered Amazon package the held the record. I listened to half of it late last night as I was reading Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution and then the whole thing on my rainy drive into work this morning. I am struck by how utterly different it is from Sleater Kinney. There is very little familiar in this album to me. In fact Corin Tucker’s voice sounds less like Corin Tucker then before.
None of this should be conceived as a bad thing. She doesn’t exceed Sleater Kinney here, but this is a very new voice for Tucker. This is not surprising really from a woman who was part of Dig Me Out which was such a great coming of age album where three people really begun to learn what they wanted to do together. Nor does it seem impossible for a person who was part of The Woods which was such a face fuck album with amazing guitar playing and totally unique song writing.
At times 1,000 Years feels like Corin is playing it safe. But in that moment, I realize that she’s never really wrote a fairly straight forward song before. Hearing her pick on an acoustic guitar is a totally new experience, simply because that instrument is in her hands. Countering that is “Half a World Away” which is such an interesting approach that I don’t quite know what to make of it. It’s something totally new once again that sounds neither like I’ve ever heard from this artists and yet it’s a product that I am not surprised she produced.
Corin Tucker is nearly Waits-like on 1,000 Years. It contains a language of music that is almost completely different from this artist’s past. And where it is more straight forward, it has Tucker’s great new singing voice on it. There are always enough twists and turns in the songs too that keep them curious and playful. Sleater Kinney was a dangerous, controversial band. Not because they were three women, or even that they were three women that “could actually play”. But because they made music no one else could have possibly made. They took so many chances in their career and never put out records that people thought they should, they never repeated themselves. And all of that paid off for the band. 1,000 Years may not have been the far out exploration that people expected, but it’s a pretty solid, totally surprising album. No song sounds the same, but there is a context throughout the entire record.