Joint Review: Superchunk “Majesty Shredding” and The Posies “Blood/Candy”

Merge 2010

So far, 2010 has been a pretty stellar year for rock and roll. It started off a little hairy, with slews of cover albums and a tapering off of 2009’s polished mediocrity. But in its wake, 2010 should be remembered as the year of the comebacks that mattered. In recent years, it seems every band from Dinosaur Jr to Mission of Burma to Superdrag to Killing Joke has reunited to give things another go-round, and in most cases, the resulting new albums are a little underwhelming.

Rykodisc 2010

Fortunately, some people still understand what a comeback is supposed to mean. Ideally, a comeback should come from a band that has been around for a long time and seen a hiatus. But, it’s only a truly successful comeback album if the record is as good as or better than anything previously released in the band’s discography. Judging from these parameters, it seems that two of my favorite bands from back in my high school days—Superchunk and The Posies—have released the best comeback albums of the last decade.

In those days, Superchunk was the perfect band to like. They rocked relentlessly and could make any party a kickass one, yet had a vulnerable side to them that helped keep the girls around. In my junior year, my parents were pretty strict about letting me go to out-of-town rock shows, so one autumn I had to choose between Pavement at Liberty Hall and Superchunk at The Bottleneck. I chose the ‘Chunk. It was 1999 on the Come Pick Me up Tour. To this day, I have no regrets (after all, I did just get to see Pavement on their reunion tour).

Superchunk’s new one, Majesty Shredding, is currently in contention for album of the year, as far as I’m concerned. There hasn’t been a single record this year that has given Owen Pallett’s Heartland a run for the money in my heart, except for this one. I love this album so much because it presents Superchunk as the unapologetic four-piece rock band that I fell in love with back in the tail end of my junior high experience. The band’s previous album, Here’s to Shutting Up, was released eight years ago, and though that album contains a few great tracks, it was kind of yawn-inducing. By that point, it seemed Superchunk was a little afraid to be themselves as a band, or maybe their self was changing, or maybe they were just getting bored.

Whatever the affliction might have been, it seems all is right in the Superchunk world again. Not only is Majesty Shredding one of the best albums of the year, it’s one of the best Superchunk albums period. That’s saying an awful lot when one considers the amount of great material they have released. On the Mouth, Foolish, Here’s Where the Strings Come In, Indoor Living, and Come Pick Me Up were all very important rock albums in my life, and Majesty Shredding easily fits into the same tier as all of those.

From the moment the drums kick in on the opening track and first single “Digging for Something”, the action literally doesn’t let up. One song, “Learned to Surf”, was featured on an EP the ‘Chunk put out last year, but the newly recorded version featured on Majesty is so much better that it renders the first obsolete. In true Superchunk fashion, a couple of the songs are more than reminiscent of older tunes by the band (“Winter Games”, in particular, recalls quite a few riffs from “Iron On”, a song from Strings). However, this is something I have come to appreciate about Superchunk—they kick out their jams without thinking about them too much (and even insist on effacing themselves in this sense by calling their publishing company All Songs Sound the Same Music). They are definitely more a pop band than a punk band, but just as always, their DIY ethics ring punk-as-fuck to the core. After all, singer/songwriter Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Balance are the founders of Merge records, which is now one of the big three independent rock labels (right up there with Matador and Sub Pop, although since all of them are distributed through major labels, they may as well be majors themselves).

Though not too musically similar, the trajectory of The Posies sometimes parallels that of Superchunk. They are similar in that they both experienced their peak awhile ago and began to taper off (though Superchunk’s peak arguably lasted longer). The years 1994 thru 1996 were big ones for The Posies, who had their greatest exposure with the 1994 album Frosting on the Beater and its accompanying minor hit “Dream All Day”. They were small-time MTV darlings for a bit and even got some radio play out of the deal, but even though their follow-up Amazing Disgrace was just as good of an album (if not better), it went nowhere. Subsequently, they released what was rumored to be their final album, Success. Since their debut record was called Failure, this seemed to be an appropriate way to bookend the Posies discography.

Thankfully, The Posies never really went away. The two main songwriters, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, while rumored to hate each other, just can’t seem to get enough of each other’s tunes. Live albums and EPs continued trickling out, and eventually, they started releasing studio albums again. The material has been good, but never have I entertained it was as good as those few albums from the nineties. Until now, that is. The new record, Blood/Candy, is a near-perfect piece of power pop that showcases the talents of The Posies’ two songwriters equally and almost flawlessly.

At first, the sequencing of the record seems odd, since the first song on the album, Stringfellow’s “Plastic Paperbacks”, is by far the worst. But as the album progresses, the track order begins to make more sense. Not only is the track listing alternating Auer/Stringfellow almost the whole way down, but with the strange, proggy nature of some of the albums songs, it helps to start things off with a little tinge of weird. Auer’s “Accidental Architecture”, for instance, is one of his strangest songs, simultaneously recalling The Zombies, Yes and Supertramp. Both songwriters have learned a few things in their many years as artists, and it seems one of their big revelations of Blood/Candy is their acceptance of their influences and themselves, and how to integrate both of those things into a greater whole.

I don’t want to talk smack on Stringfellow, either, by any means—his songs on this album are pretty incredible. “Licenses to Hide” is his seeming tribute to song collages of Brian Wilson, and maybe to the grandiose nature of show tunes. Each of the song’s parts has its own distinct feel and rhythm, and while slightly disorienting, it’s also unavoidably catchy, memorable and pretty damn original. He also provides a slightly morbid drug anthem, “She’s Coming Down Again!”, which while cheesy is still undeniably great Posies fare. With that said, Auer steals the show—“So Caroline” perfectly presents his dichotomy of sunny melodies and words of longing, and the penultimate “Holiday Hours”, with its haunting chord changes and dusty guitar tones, shows he is still progressing as a songwriter.

In summation, it’s been very exciting to me to see such successful returns from two of the bands that are most responsible for making me fall in love with rock music. With how obsessed I can get over this stuff, I almost wonder if I should thank them at all, but I must. The music of Superchunk and The Posies was very prevalent at that time in my life when nothing really made sense but everything was incredible. In growing older, I see more and more each year how the opposite slowly becomes the case. This is the best thing about these albums being so awesome—the combined age of all these band members must be something like 1000, yet they all still sound energized and inspired to make music that excites them. That, in turn, is inspiring to me.

Superchunk: *****
Posies: ****1/2

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One Response to “Joint Review: Superchunk “Majesty Shredding” and The Posies “Blood/Candy””

  1. JoJo Longbottom Says:

    Well said Hawks, but I’m surprised that you like the Superchunk record more than the Posies. Blood Candy is kind of blowing my mind and Shredding hasn’t done that yet, but that may be because I have dedicated more time to the former. 2 damn fine records!

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