Album Review : Superchunk’s ‘What a Time to Be Alive’

Superchunk have been a constant in the indie rock music scene since the early 90s. They helped to define a sound, regionally in the Chapel Hill music scene, and nationally that defined what itmeant to be “college rock”. There’s also the whole DIY ethos surrounding the band, with members Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan forming indie music record label Merge Records. First they started a label as a way to release their own music as well as music from friends, but Merge has grown into one of the most well-respected independent labels in the world.

So what does all of this say about Superchunk? It says they’re indie rock royalty and over 25 years into their career they’re still a vital American rock band that continue to make great albums. Their latest, the great What a Time to Be Alive, is another excellent record to add to the discography. It’s also a big middle finger to the current administration, wrapped in a pop-inflected punk rock bow. Since their 2010 return with Majesty Shredding from a nine-year hiatus, Superchunk have released three albums, with What a Time to Be Alive being number three and it’s yet another solid record. Another reason to hold these indie rock stalwarts in high regard.

In the spirit of full disclosure I wasn’t much of an indie rock kid, young adult, or even twenty-something. In the early and mid-90s I was hanging with the Beatles, Kinks, and some of those Seattle bands. I was also getting down with Billy Corgan and a bunch of other “alternative” artists that would eventually get too big for their britches. That was the problem with  the alternative 90s, man. So many of them started out so bright in the massive musical night sky only to fizzle out after two or three albums. No staying power. Superchunk have staying power. Just listen to opening/title track “What a Time to Be Alive”. It blows out of the speakers like a rallying cry for all the disenfranchised, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing youth of today and yesteryear. There’s some punk push and pull, but there’s also massive hooks that jump out and grab you. “Lost My Brain” is in and out in just over 1:30 and that’s all is needed. Singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan still sounds like a kid out of Chapel Hill grabbing the world by the cojones and saying “It’s my time, now.” Superchunk exudes a forever youth quality, even well into their near 30 year career. “Break The Glass” sounds like the essential DNA strand that helped define bands like Harvey Danger, Motion City Soundtrack, and a good portion of the emo movement.

Listening to Superchunk’s earlier albums you can hear the echo of other like-minded indie bands of the early and mid-90s. Dino Jr, Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, and Blake Babies all share that air of punk rock abandon and pop hooks that Superchunk have been dabbling in since those pre-Clinton years. With McCaughan and Ballance starting Merge Records, it was as if they were trying to create their own East Coast version of K Records. Except less folk and more buzzing tube amps.

Elsewhere, “Dead Photgraphers” captures some J Mascis guitar noise bliss and “Erasure” does Bob Mould proud with some very Sugar feels. “Our empathy weaponized” McCaughan sings over an almost 50s beat. “Reagan Youth” gets all 80s angst-y. Not sure if this song is an ode to the anarcho-punk band of the same name from Queens, but either way it’s a great track. One of the true highlights here is closing track “Black Thread”. It’s a great and catchy tune with a heaping helping of melancholy. There’s bits of Feelies, REM, and of course plenty of that Chapel Hill magic.

There aren’t too many bands from those early days of 90s indie/alternative/college rock that are still doing the work, writing the songs, and pushing themselves to keep the songs interesting. Of those few that still are, you can include Superchunk. They still have something to say and this protest album of sorts proves it. Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur, and Jon Wurster may not have rewritten the mission statement or rebuilt anything, but there’s no need when things sound as good as What a Time to Be Alive does.



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