Not So Incidental Music

A Dozen Essential Superchunk Songs

by Mike Noren and Arnold Pan

21 August 2013


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6. “Baxter” (1993)
(collected on Incidental Music 1991-1995)

An oddity among the band’s early-‘90s anthems, “Baxter” doesn’t storm out of the gate in typical Superchunk fashion, but it reaches the same heights in its own way. Rolling out with just bass and drums, the song takes shape as guitars punch in and out, alternately screeching, riffing, and seesawing. The lyrics read like disconnected fragments—a bloody chin, a scene from 1950, a man making jewelry for his daughter—but the song snaps into focus for each chorus of “He’s always happy about something.” Originally released on a hard-to-find seven-inch for Tsunami’s Simple Machines label, “Baxter” is one of several stray tracks that make the Incidental Music 1991-1995 compilation as essential as Superchunk’s proper albums. ~ Mike Noren

5. “Throwing Things” (1991)
(No Pocky for Kitty)

No song better expresses the range of moods that Superchunk evokes from hard-charging romanticism to tender-hearted sentiment than “Throwing Things” does in its two versions. The driving, dynamic melody of the plugged-in original from 1991’s No Pocky for Kitty finds Superchunk at its most desperate and pleading, with McCaughan striding headlong after the object of affections. But it’s the acoustic redo that’s the more lasting version of “Throwing Things”, the best-case scenario among the many strong unplugged renditions Superchunk has done to reinvent its own songs. The remake takes the piss and vinegar out of Mac’s anxious tone, as he comes off more earnest and yearning than ever when matched by the true, clear tone of his acoustic strum. ~ Arnold Pan

4. “Driveway to Driveway” (1994)

Careening at a mid-tempo pace with loping guitar lines, “Driveway to Driveway” was a big departure for Superchunk at precisely the moment the foursome’s turn in the spotlight came around. But “Driveway to Driveway” wasn’t just going against the grain of Superchunk’s own history as an indie prom ballad rather than a pogo-punk ditty, it flew in the face of what indie was supposed to be, circa 1994: Instead of tongue-in-cheek wordplay or sentimentality in quotes, Superchunk wore its heart on its sleeve more vulnerably than before here, touching on the break up of band principals Ballance and McCaughan most achingly as the latter crooned, “My hand on your heart had been replaced / And I thought it was you that I had chased / Driveway to driveway, drunk,” his voice breaking to his broken heart. The irony, of course, is that this atypical Superchunk song has turned out to be one of the songs the band is most identified with. ~ Arnold Pan

3. “Slack Motherfucker” (1990)
(collected on Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91))

Few bands have cranked out as much high-quality, high-energy rock music as Superchunk, and even fewer have done so while members were running a record label as prolific as Merge. There’s no doubting the band’s work ethic, and yet Superchunk continues to be best known its track about loafing and smoke breaks, “Slack Motherfucker”. A classic early single and highlight of their self-titled debut album (1990), the song delivers either a slacker rallying cry or a rant about a lazy co-worker, depending on how you want to approach it. But more than anything, the song’s key line—“I’m working, but I’m not working for you”—feels like a defining statement from a band that’s always functioned on its own terms. ~ Mike Noren

2. “Cool” (1991)
(collected on Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91))

“Slack Motherfucker” is generally cited as Superchunk’s quintessential Gen-X statement, but you could make a good case that “Cool” is the band’s more compelling early-era touchstone, both musically and thematically. There’s a more developed sense of build-up on “Cool” than there is in most of the group’s early material, coming up with more of a melodic payoff and a little more space for Superchunk to work with than normal. But it’s Mac’s state-of-the-scene musings that stand out, turning out to be prophetic for a band that probably didn’t imagine being around two decades down the line: When McCaughan crows, “There’s nothing new / Everything’s borrowed / Everything’s used,” he might as well be describing how Superchunk didn’t invent the punk-pop wheel, just ended up pushing it forward. Then comes the kicker, as he rounds out those lines declaring, “But we know it’s cool / And we’re cooler than you / And you know it’s true,” sentiments as true now as when they were first uttered in 1991. Now that’s cool. ~ Arnold Pan

1. “Detroit Has a Skyline” (1995)
(Here’s Where the Strings Come In)

As its title suggests, 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In showed the band adding some new elements to its sound, but the album also took the time to perfect old formulas before moving on: “Detroit Has a Skyline” starts with a crash and launches into a full-speed guitar assault as vital as any in the band’s catalog. McCaughan’s vocals are equal parts angry and apologetic, dealing with a break-up by turning up the stereo, drunk dialing, and pleading for a second chance (“Meet me again / I won’t flake this time”). An acoustic version on the Cup of Sand (2003) compilation ramps up the regret and shows that the songwriting stands up even without the soaring guitars. ~ Mike Noren

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