“If I seem out of it …” are the first words we hear Mac McCaughan sing on Leaves in the Gutter. Since they’re the first new words we’ve heard him sing on a Superchunk record in eight years, it might be easy to read them as a weary harbinger of a let down coming on. After all, a five-track EP is as a pretty slight return for patient fans. Even if the eight years since Superchunk’s excellent Here’s to Shutting Up have yielded a number of great records from MCCaughan’s other band, Portastatic, Leaves in the Gutter is still a hotly anticipated return from one of the great rock bands of all time, and it would be a shame if that return found the band sounding “out of it”.
But any worries that Mac hints at mediocrity with those opening lines are quickly allayed. Leaves in the Gutter classifies as a sharp, if brief, return from Superchunk. In some ways, it can sound like a quick review of the band’s subtly shifting sound. The full-pop brightness of “Learned to Surf” could easily be at home on Indoor Living, while “Misfits and Mistakes” could settle nicely into On the Mouth. “Screw it Up” sounds most like the Superchunk we last heard from in 2001, while the moodier crunch of “Knock Knock Knock” would fit well on Foolish. On top of these, the band throws in an acoustic version of “Learned to Surf”, which is not only hushed and excellent in its own right, but it falls into a long line of acoustic versions — “Detroit Has a Skyline” and “Throwing Things” are some highlights among them — that have been popping up on the band’s singles and EPs for years.
None of these comparisons to older sounds are simple or balanced. “Knock Knock Knock” does not, for instance, equal “Driveway to Driveway”. Instead, these serve as nostaligic signifiers for the band’s fans. After such a long drought without a record, it’s easy to get wistful hearing new stuff. The opening riff of “Learned to Surf” could easily launch someone into reverie, remembering the first time he or she heard the blissful noise of “Hyper Enough” or “Like a Fool”. While these new songs do use talents the band has well established — the stretched-out and noodling riffs, cacophonic solos, the blunt force of power chords and the propulsion of Jon Wurster’s drumming — it gets woven through much tighter songs more interested in mature tunefulness than frenetic angry-young-man energy.
The songs are not just air-tight and catchy, but they also sound effortless. Through a long career, Superchunk has worked hard to get to this point: The point where they have nothing left to prove. The quartet simply writes great songs, one right after the other. From the anthemic rock of “Learned to Surf” and “Misfits and Mistakes” to the subtler layers of “Screw It Up” and “Knock Knock Knock”, this quick blast of music never lets up. The band sounds like they’re standing on fresh legs, ready to dive back into the rock landscape again to take it over.
The EPs bright production helps to bolster the notion that this band, though they may only play a few times a year and are short on new material, are exactly where they want to be. The moodier struggling sound of, say, Foolish was the sound of a band still working it out. Sure, they were better than most, but they were still pressing to find new ground. But with all those searching records, Superchunk built their own ground to stand on, and it is on that firm land that they’ve created Leaves in the Gutter. They may have settled in, but it hasn’t dulled their focus, and “Learned to Surf” and “Misfits and Mistakes” — two of the finest rock songs to come out in 2009 — can attest to that.
Superchunk claim they had to get these songs out of the way if they were ever going to make another record. But Leaves in the Gutter cannot be labeled simply a hold-over disc or a brief pay-off for fans who have waited these eight years. While it does work within some indie rock nostalgia — back to the height of the 90s college rock sound or to a time when EPs were vital pieces to your favorite discographies — it isn’t just a retread by a band who’s been around long enough to patent their sound. What it is, above all of that, is simply a great bunch of songs. And, really, does it need to be any more than that?