The last time the members of Superchunk convened inside studio doors to work on a new full-length, the twin towers still encapsulated the New York City skyline and all four original Ramones were alive. This was sometime during the spring of 2001. The last time I saw the band live, later that same year in New York City, they sounded great as always but the mood was tense and the band looked disinterested. They were not the group I had witnessed for the first time so brazenly drunk and inspired (Jim Wilbur was very, very inspired as I recall!) seven years prior, and the crowd reaction was subdued. Maybe there were interband struggles, maybe the band played too many slow songs from their new keyboard-driven release, Here’s to Shutting Up, or maybe, just maybe, it was Mac’s untimely use of air travel as means of metaphor on the new songs that made everyone a bit queasy that night.
In any case, it’s been over four years, and Superchunk fans have been sustaining proudly on the b-side compilation Cup of Sand, a few archival releases dished out in limited quantities, intermittent live shows, The Arcade Fire, probably a few other Merge releases, and of course Portastatic, Superchunk frontman Mac MacCaughan’s side project, which really isn’t a side thing anymore. Since Superchunk’s last platter, there have been a slew of Portastatic releases in their various forms of idiosyncrasy, and priorities may or may not be shifting (though they certainly look to be) as Superchunk remains on hiatus. Nonetheless, with Bright Ideas there is good news. Mac has thrown his fans a solid here, recruiting Chunk guitarist Jim Wilbur on bass and his brother Matt once again to play drums, heading to San Francisco and into a proper studio and recording the first Portastatic record that harkens back to the electric whimsy of Indoor Living and Here’s Where the Strings Come In.
Bright Ideas is front-loaded with aces. A ringing guitar lead introduces “Through with People”, an incredibly bright and buoyant rocker that once again displays MacCaughan’s gift for channeling his frustrations into a joyous pop anthem. (“So let the sun set on this paper shade/ Let me get some sleep in this bed that I made” may strike some as an empty and almost churlish refrain, but I can almost guarantee that you will be singing along after just two or three listens.) This is followed by the driving “White Wave” (it’s “Water Wings” meets “European Medicine”), possessing a sharp hook in the chorus that chimes in with right channel guitar after the second verse, and “I Wanna Know Girls” (“I wanna know girls/ Don’t wanna know men/ I’m already stuck inside the head of one of them,” MacCaughan sings), which will win you over with sheer glee.
After the big guitar pop of the previous three tracks, the song arrangements spread out a bit and become more varied (and flawed, the country-tinged “Little Fern” is the record’s lone dud), alternating between string-laced introspective ballads (“Truckstop Cassettes” and “Full of Stars”) and a few bouncy, descant rockers (“The Soft Rewind”). The big highlight then comes with the penultimate and irresistible “Center of the World”, another canorous rocker built on kinetic strands of Chunk DNA that will have old fans cathartically pogoing off their couches, tapping their feet, or at least smiling widely.
As good as Bright Ideas is, though, I still can’t recommend it over say, the last Superchunk record. Bright Ideas lacks that record’s musical depth, and I’ve grown to love Here’s to Shutting Up and all of its Yo La Tengo-like aspirations. But this record is still chock full of catchy little tunes, which showcase neat riffs and insightful lyrical truisms that will reward most discerning music listeners, even those who’ve never heard of Superchunk. I’ve even converted a few.
But most importantly, besides being a friendlier sonic cousin of Indoor Living with cleaner production values, Bright Ideas is not unlike Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, Robert Pollard’s 1999 solo album, in that it plays to an indie elder statesman’s strengths and may get core fans all frenzied again. I can see Bright Ideas doing the same, and I look forward to seeing Superchunk, hopefully soon, and under better circumstances.