Friday, June 22, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 6/22/12 - Superchunk and Van Dyke Parks

The “This Summer”/”Cruel Summer” 7-inch is the latest offering from classy ‘90s survivors Superchunk, and while not up to the level of the band’s finest work, that really doesn’t seem to be its intention. Instead, it’s one of the better recent examples of indie rockers gracefully adapting to middle age.
Superchunk, the enduring Chapel Hill NC based quartet whose existence served as the impetus for the creation of Merge Records, forms one of the biggest chapters in a book that’s yet to be written, specifically a detailed documentation on the topic of ‘90s indie rock. But the Merge connection is ultimately only a portion of Superchunk’s huge relevance to said movement, with the label’s first decade taking on a life of its own through defining records from names as disparate as Polvo, The Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel.
No, Superchunk’s deepest importance is in how they wed classicist pop-rock songwriting to post-hardcore structures and energies and in their very no-big-dealness became very much a big deal. And clueless magazine writers were often caught guilty of misinterpreting the meaning of their early foulmouthed anthem “Slack Motherfucker”, detailing it as a celebration of calculated laziness and underachievement.
But those who loved the band already knew that one of Superchunk’s most appealing collective character traits was extra-musical, namely their tenacious work ethic; tour incessantly, write and hone songs, record albums and then tour some more. On top of all this fruitful activity Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance somehow found time to run a label.
With Superchunk there was no detuned guitar soundscapes, no EPs of trip-hop remixes, no exhausting 79-minute compact discs detailing forays into expansive conceptual realms, no unexpected detours into exploratory Krautrock-inspired jams; in some ways the group, purveyor of quality LPs though they were, was really a “live band” in the best sense of the term, particularly early on. The albums brought familiarity and solidity, but the foursome was at their strongest when plugging in, tuning and turning up, and finally throwing down.
Indeed, in the live setting they were a sight to behold and a sound to behear; I personally witnessed them turn the small stage of Lollapalooza’s touring incarnation (locale: The Charles Town Racetrack in Wild Wonderful West Virginia) into a immense dust cloud of sweaty pogo frenzy, interlacing their set-closing behemoth “Precision Auto” with a gleeful go-for-broke cover of Minor Threat’s “Screaming at a Wall” as sung by wiry, witty drummer Jon Wurster.
Superchunk has always been a self-deprecating unit though, often deflecting well deserved praise toward other bands or records they felt were more deserving of kudos. But again, their own releases were actually quite good and occasionally even excellent expressions of their small-scale essence as documented for home use. That documentation established a laudable trajectory of growth, even if their detractors basically chose to ignore it, those naysayers naggingly underestimating this bunch as a mere retread/update of borrowed Buzzcocks and Hüsker Dü moves given a contempo indie spin.
That chapter in the book again; in terms of the great big indie bums-rush of the ‘90s, Superchunk can be portrayed as one line in the sand between those who embraced the phenomenon and those who didn’t. Listeners in favor of the group found a crew of determined and intelligent rock fans kicking out their own rip-roaring jams for the enjoyment of themselves and an audience of equals. Detractors would instead brandish the band’s name as an example of indie rock’s low expectations, or to decry its elevation of attitude over results.
By now it should be obvious on which side of the line this writer resides. If there were lessons to be learned from punk rock and the ‘80s underground bands that soldiered on in its wake, then Superchunk embodied them, mostly because the live shows, the records and the label that released them were all so worthwhile.
And their growth really was a perceptible and rewarding development; from the young fresh rawness of the initial trio of LPs, 1990’s Superchunk, ‘91’s No Pocky for Kitty and ‘93’s On the Mouth, to the palpable leap forward of ‘94’s Foolish and the two expressions of maturity and breadth that followed it, ‘95’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In and ‘97’s Indoor Living, the quartet made a admirable sonic progression.
However, I’m somewhat in the minority in considering 1999’s Come Pick Me Up and 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up as their finest works. And I don’t think it would be inaccurate to surmise that the band themselves would disagree with my qualitative assessment, based mainly on the Superchunk records to appear subsequent to that duo of underappreciated gems.
Both Here’s to Shutting Up and especially its Jim O’Rourke produced predecessor displayed the band at their most far reaching, and I find it a perplexing drag that the cumulative creativity of these efforts are far too often simply categorized as just two more LPs by Superchunk instead of accurately championed as a righteous combo-punch of shrewd and searching songs that greatly transcended the tag of indie.
Well, nearly a decade elapsed before they released another full length record (though there were occasional comp tracks, a few 7-inchs and an EP), and when Majesty Shredding appeared, it became immediately clear that Superchunk were reverting back to a more direct, less expansive period in their history. It was once again about the clarity of ungarnished melodic rock; the aim toward crafting bold advancements in depth and ambition was shifting elsewhere.
For in that hazy hiatus of the Aughts this aura of expansiveness once proffered by the ‘chunk was largely extended through Mac’s former side-project Portastatic, particularly on the excellent 2008 LP Be Still Please. Meanwhile, Wurster was drumming all over the place, most notably in The Mountain Goats and for Bob Mould, guitarist Jim Wilbur was pulling occasional spots in Portastatic, and Ballance, who occasionally gave off the vibe of a somewhat reluctant performer, concerned herself with Merge, the label having bloomed into one of our largest indie labels.
The appearance of the “This Summer”/”Cruel Summer” 7-inch finds Superchunk continuing their recent course and knocking out a pair of stray tracks en route to their next full length, and happily the results retain the standard of their work over the last decade. And to clarify, while the band has returned to a more stripped down approach, they haven’t regressed.
What’s largely gone is the wider instrumental palate (plus Mac’s falsetto) from ’99-’01, the group’s most exploratory songwriting (beginning with Foolish and culminating strongly with Here’s to Shutting Up) and the two guitar tangle of McCaughan and Wilbur at its snakiest (heard best on Come Pick Me Up). What’s here is the unfettered maturation as detailed by Superchunk’s growth expressed through a reassessment of the no-frills attack they wielded so expertly in the ’90-’94 period.
To elaborate, “This Summer” opens with Mac’s well-familiar vocal rasp delivering lyrical sentiments undeniably derived from the school of Springsteen, with the first near-minute of the tune registering very much like something from an upstart songwriter circa ’83 that’s been blown away in equal measure by The River, Marshall Crenshaw, and the glories of straight-up power pop.
Then the full band kicks in, as heavy yet adept at navigating crucial pop hooks as ever they were via On the Mouth or even Foolish (probably their best album in the equality of songs and delivery). “This Summer” is over in three and some change, and if it doesn’t equal Superchunk at their absolute best, it’s still a very worthwhile proposition.
Just as importantly, the music sounds as inspired as always. And the flip is a well rendered cover, specifically “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. For those unfamiliar with Superchunk’s modus operandi regarding the material of others, this seemingly unlikely song is no piss-take; the band has previously tackled numbers by names as diverse as Sebadoh, Bowie, The Verlaines, Government Issue, The Chills, Motorhead, Adam and the Ants, Misfits and Destiny’s Child, treating them all with the same level of respect.
“Cruel Summer” retains recognizable elements of the original, but its unabashed rock orientation is to my ears a big improvement upon the rather brittle veneer of Bananarama’s synth-pop gush. Interestingly, I can’t shake hearing a big similarity to the attempts of many early-‘80s SoCal punk acts to integrate elements of trad rock into their sounds. Difference is, those attempts nearly always sounded lousy and “Cruel Summer” sounds quite jake. It is perhaps a bit like something Agent Orange could’ve pulled off around the time of When You Least Expect It. But of course, they did not.
It’s tempting to evaluate Superchunk’s recent material as an admirable gesture for loyal fans, but the quality of the work has proven strong enough to continue roping new listeners into the fold. And with this seven-inch the trend continues.

Van Dyke Parks is easily one of the most eclectic and engaging musical minds of the last fifty years. Largely known for his involvement as lyricist in the resurrected phoenix that is The Beach Boys’ Smile, he’s also put his stamp on an array of important works, none better than his own 1972 masterpiece Discover America.
Please consider for a moment the impressive range of Van Dyke Parks. Yes, in addition to Smile there is his arranging for “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book. He’s also served as a producer and/or arranger for records as diverse as the debuts of Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits and Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and contributed as a player to Tim Buckley’s first album, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, Linda Thompson’s Fashionably Late and Vic Chesnutt’s Ghetto Bells. The guy even composed music for TV commercials, including work for Datsun automobiles and the figure skating mayhem known as the Ice Capades.
But to really crack the delicious and nourishing nut that is Mr. Parks, inspection of his solo work is an absolute must. Song Cycle, his 1967 debut is in obvious retrospect one of the truly amazing introductory statements in all of 20th Century music. I say obvious because hardly anybody bought the thing when it came out. This was due in part to his low profile. While he’d released a couple singles on MGM, he wasn’t exactly stormtrooping the era’s cultural radar.
But the main reason Song Cycle was destined for a second life as a cherished cult magnum opus lies in how Parks’ thoroughly non-trite baroque pop and gently psychedelic sensibilities synched-up with both his uncommonly deep and diverse interest in the history of popular song and the man’s shrewd ear for value in the contemporary (the record featured covers of both Newman’s “Vine Street” and Donovan’s “Colours”). With tenuous ties to the rock scene and a lack of capital with the rising tide of youth culture, it’s really no surprise Song Cycle took four years to recoup its admittedly large for the era $35,000 budget.
Ambivalent about his lack of success but undaunted, Parks bided his time by working with other artists through Warner Brothers. He did release a single in 1970, “The Eagle and Me”/”On the Rolling Sea When Jesus Speak to Me”, combining the A-side’s ‘40s-era Arlen/Harburg Broadway show tune with the flip’s radically interpreted cover of a gospel song by legendary Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence. If the deck was stacked against Song Cycle in ’67, then by 1970 this single didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in a Hollywood hot tub. Needless to say, the record was scarce, apparently even at the time, to the point that many of Parks’ fans didn’t even know of its existence until Rykodisc utilized it as bonus tracks in their compact disc reissue program of his stuff.
If it appears that I dwell on this seeming one-off obscurity, it’s for a very good reason; the record sheds crucial light on what’s often been perceived as Discover America’s severe change in direction (and I’ll add that both tracks are now available on Arrangements Volume 1, a brilliantly enlightening collection of Park’s early collaborations and MGM stuff released on LP and digitally through his own Bananastan label). For if his second solo effort’s levels of stylistic departure still leave some people stumped, that once neglected single provides a key to understanding.
Discover America is a concept record, but not in the potentially frightening way familiar to rock bands with a surplus of aspiration. Simultaneously a tribute to classic Trinidadian calypso and a loose rumination on American history, it might initially (and for a while after that) seem to be totally out of step with the norms of 1972. But look closer and it becomes clear that it fell right into the decade’s breadbasket for nostalgic longing, a then somewhat new impulse that largely located the 1950s as The Good Old Days (think American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha-Na-Na, chart hits by Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson, Grease).
Naturally, Discover America’s lasting importance is due in large part to its complexity and subtlety, factors that when combined with its seemingly casual, highly appealing music caused it to slip right by most critics at the time as merely an odd, inoffensive trifle. But make no mistake; Discover America is a rare and vital combination of sincere accessibility and bold, multifaceted ambition.
The proceedings start off rather strangely. A one minute clip of the great calypso singer Mighty Sparrow’s “Jack Palance” is immediately followed by “Introduction”, a twenty-five second bit of spliced tape recordings featuring an old man with a voice like heavy-duty sandpaper; meant to signify the talk of tour guides that frequented the busses of the album’s cover, to be frank the first time I heard it I was quite blindsided by its similarity to Captain Beefheart’s “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back”. And then to move directly into Parks smoothly crooning a cover of The Roaring Loin’s “Bing Crosby” provided a momentary study in sweet discombobulation.
Those worried over a lack of expertise regarding calypso need not be, for it’s as welcoming a musical form as there is. And it’s perfectly fine to ignore my advice; well done calypso reissues are numerous and widely available, with Rounder Records’ Roosevelt in Trinidad; Calypsos of Events, Places and Personalities being particularly illuminating as it includes originals of three of Discover America’s tunes, “Bing Crosby”, “The Four Mills Brothers” (also by The Roaring Lion) and “FDR in Trinidad” (by Attila the Hun). Parks shows the depth of his interest by including two from Lord Kitchener, three pieces of traditional origin and a fascinatingly strange tongue-in-cheek reworking of Sir Lancelot’s “G-Man Hoover”, a celebration of J. Edgar, late of the FBI.
But he didn’t limit himself to Trinidadian works. Two Allen Toussaint covers appear, “Riverboat” and a deliriously grooving cover of “Occapella”, very likely the album’s highpoint. And “John Jones” by ‘60s Trojan Records’ reggae singer Rudy Mills is given a lazily swinging treatment. But Lowell George’s “Sailin’ Shoes” is also present, and in markedly different form from the Little Feat original (released the same year!).
In fact Little Feat’s George and Roy Estrada both contribute to “FDR in Trinidad”, so fans of that band and George’s distinctive slide playing in particular should take note. But the most interesting instrumentalists included on Discover America are The Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band, whose excellent Esso LP from 1971 was produced by Parks. Their mastery brings an authentic flavor that contrasts well with the record’s atmosphere of broad interpretation, specifically on the traditional “Steelband Music” and the quietly prescient statement on multiculturalism that is the LP’s coda, a short bit of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”.
What slowly becomes obvious is that Parks genuinely loves Caribbean music; while respectful the record is never self-servingly so. And its concept holds a real point-of-view, examining the value in how other countries see and celebrate American culture. I’ve played the album many times specifically looking for a flaw, but by the start of the second side have always forgotten the task at hand.
Okay, at thirty-seven minutes and change, it still manages to feel too short. But the results of combined listening with Esso and Mighty Sparrow’s very fine 1974 Parks-produced Hot and Sweet LP are simply splendid. They extensively detail not only the huge scope of Parks’ interest and talent, but also show just how much amazing music is out there just waiting for discovery.