Superchunk's imprint is all over modern-day rock music. It's no exaggeration to say that few of the bands lumped together with the dreaded "emo" tag would sound like they do if Superchunk never existed. Yet while Superchunk have doled out their play-fast-and-loud-while-singing-your-tears-away style of rock long enough for it to become a formula for younger bands to build upon, the group has spent the last half of their career quietly progressing, molding their music into something more complicated. Prettier melodies, more intricate arrangements and delicate textures have taken their still-rocking songs to the next level. Long after they've been defined as "'90s college rock icons" or whatever, they've been making the best music of their career.
Cup of Sand is the third Superchunk compilation of B-sides, compilation tracks, and other rare or unreleased songs, and at 2 discs it's by far the longest. Since it chronologically comes after the other two compilations -- 1992's Tossing Seeds and 1995's Incidental Music: 1991-1995 -- you'd expect it to reflect the recent stylistic adjustments the group has made, to sound as different from Tossing Seeds as their latest album Here's to Shutting Up sounds from their self-titled debut. So what's surprising at first is how much Cup of Sand sounds like an extension of the previous collections. Disc 1 especially sounds like it could be the long-lost second disc of Incidental Music. Songs like the late '90s EP-tracks "The Majestic" and "Her Royal Fisticuffs" are filled with the big guitars and wry but friendly angst that are Superchunk's hallmarks.
In a way it makes perfect sense, as a collection of songs that a band didn't put on their albums is as much a portrait of what that band wasn't doing during those years as it is of what they were doing. The songs here reflect the changes the band was going through, as well as attempted changes that just didn't work out, but many of them are also "typical" Superchunk songs that got left to the side as the group moved on. That mix should guarantee hearty interest from both current Superchunk fans and those who threw them aside the first time they slowed down the pace or threw in an unexpected instrument. Cup of Sand is a snapshot of the Superchunk that was, the Superchunk that is, and the Superchunk that could have been, and as such should entertain anyone who's ever loved, or even liked, the band.
Superchunk have embraced the single, the EP, the compilation just about anything you can put a song on. While, on the whole, Cup of Sand is nowhere near as cohesive or as accomplished as any of the group's proper albums, it does demonstrate that the group has thrown aside a lot of fantastic songs over the years. From the heartwrenching ballad "A Small Definition" to the slacker-rock anthem "Does Your Hometown Care?", Disc 1 alone includes plenty of great songs that were in danger of slipping through the fingers of even the group's fans. The more eclectic Disc 2 has even more. Beginning with a rough, odd cover of Adam and the Ants' "Beat My Guest" and continuing through some sexy, shiny and somewhat atypically "pop" outtakes from their most recent three albums (Indoor Living, Come Pick Me Up, and Here's to Shutting Up), the songs throughout this disc are like the more off-beat siblings of some of the group's best songs. There's a cover of David Bowie's "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)", a Country & Western cover of Come Pick Me Up's "1000 Pounds", a song called "The Length of Las Ramblas" that has a gorgeous late night/early morning mood, a couple Here's to Shutting Up outtakes that rock harder than anything on the album, and a closing Government Issue cover ("Blending In") from '92 to show us they can still kick our asses when they want to.
The liner notes to Cup of Sand include the band's copious, often humorous notes about each of the 25 songs on the compilation. It's an interesting read for fans, yet if there's any music that doesn't need an explanation, it's Superchunk. Their music has always been sublimely visceral; whether they're compelling you to jump around your room or moving you to tears, or doing both at the same time (what they've always done best), their music is something you feel. Even a ragtag collection of misfit songs like Cup of Sand gets that across clear as day.