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Friday August 12th

Superchunk Re-emerges With Polished Sheen


Like Time Out Chicken 'n Biscuits or the Cat's Cradle, Superchunk is a Chapel Hill institution. And like most institutions, it got that way because it did something consistently well.

The stalwart rockers have been cranking out their distinctive brand of amped up power-pop for more than a decade now, wowing audiences across the country and the globe.

The band was almost solely responsible for catapulting Chapel Hill onto the national cool map with its 1990 single "Slack Motherfucker." On Here's to Shutting Up, the band's eighth full-length album, Superchunk continue its commitment to excellence. The record also continues Superchunk's evolution so evidenced by 1999's Come Pick Me Up.

The record's rich, layered compositions -- at times beautiful, at times rocking, at times both -- are the sounds of a band confident in its maturity.

For the past two albums Superchunk has gradually turned down the volume, replacing kinetic energy with increased ingenuity. With Here's To Shutting Up, the band has arrived at what it was striving for before -- a fully developed new Superchunk sound. The distorted guitars, driving bass and bombastic drums are still there, but now strings, organs, acoustic guitars and even a lap steel fill things out.

McCaughan's voice, which reached a surprisingly high falsetto on Come Pick Me Up, has dropped a few notes. Even though it's still higher than anything on older albums it works well on this record. The falsetto seemed a little strained and not sure on Come Pick Me Up, but McCaughan seems confident in his vocal range now.

Not only that, he has reached a new level of songwriting. The slacker anthems and rockers of On the Mouth or other releases have been completely replaced with contemplative, superbly constructed lyrical compositions complete with multilayered harmonies.

Among the most noticeable departures from the Superchunk canon is the laid-back country rocker "Phone Sex." The violin, lap steel and a driving 3/3 beat almost sound more like Whiskeytown than Superchunk. Harmonies drip like syrup over the infectious melody, and the eerily appropriate (but completely coincidental) chorus -- "Plane crash footage on TV/ I know, I know that could be me" -- make the song even more memorable.

Heavy on the keyboards and strings, "The Animal Has Left its Shell" and "What Do You Look Forward To?" slow the tempo down even more for two of the band's best ballads. Making a kind of indie-easy listening, it's a testament to Superchunk's range that they can rock so hard yet still make music your parents could make out to.

But there's still rock aplenty on Here's to Shutting Up. "Rainy Streets" has all the anthemic immediacy that makes the band's live audiences pogo up and down like coked-up kangaroos. Likewise for "Out on the Wing" and "Art Class." The main difference between these and rockers from older albums is that instead of pulling out all the stops, Superchunk has precisely calculated notes and structure to achieve a paradoxically maximum yet restrained rock value.

There are those who will say that Superchunk has lost whatever gift it had, that they're past their prime. But Superchunk is just getting its second wind.

Yes, the band is an institution. But unlike most institutions this one is constantly looking forward and evolving. And it rocks harder than a Time Out sausage biscuit ever could.

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