True story: after Superchunk‘s irreproachable sophomore effort, No Pocky for Kitty (1991), the second album of theirs that I bought over three decades ago was Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91), primarily for the tracks “Slack Motherfucker” and “Brand New Love”. The former could be found on their 1990 self-titled debut, but why not get that song plus their faithful rendition of Lou Barlow‘s early classic? Superchunk have always had excellent taste in the covers they record, and their eclectic compilations have been cherished among fans for their inclusion of such material.
Superchunk’s latest compilation, Misfits & Mistakes: Singles, B-Sides & Strays 2007-2023, is no different. Taken further, however, it is noteworthy for documenting what might be called their “late style” after three-plus decades on the indie rock scene. Founded in 1989, Superchunk has become a venerable institution with 12 studio albums and, equally significant, their provisional role as the house band for Merge Records, which Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance concurrently established in 1989.
Indeed, Superchunk have persevered despite the departure of Ballance in 2013 from live performances (due to hyperacusis) and the more recent retirement of Jon Wurster from drumming duties (he currently plays with the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould). Mac McCaughan (vocals, guitar) and Jim Wilbur (lead guitar) have carried on touring with new iterations involving Jason Narducy (bass) from Bob Mould’s band, Betsy Wright (bass) from Bat Fangs, and Laura King (drums) also from Bat Fangs.
Misfits & Mistakes encompasses this transition period, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the sound of it. The ethos they initially started with involving compact, high-energy power pop songs remains. Early attempts at revising this approach on Foolish (1994) and Here’s Where the Strings Come In (1995) slowed things down, though the band had difficulty shaking off their established mien. Recent LPs like Majesty Shredding (2010) and What a Time to Be Alive (2018), which followed a hiatus after the release of Here’s to Shutting Up (2001), have essentially reinforced what they have long been good at.
With 50 songs at 150 minutes, plus an unusual timeframe of 16 years (multiples of five be damned!), it is interesting to consider Misfits & Mistakes against a backdrop of what else was happening during this long period. Music-wise, Merge was peaking with next-generation albums like The Suburbs (2010) by Arcade Fire, winning Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Politically, the US experienced the whiplash of electing Barack Obama twice, followed by Donald Trump. Societally, the encroachment of climate change and the Covid pandemic have shifted how we understand the human condition.
Through it all, Superchunk soldiered on by recording covers of the Cure, John Cale, and Destiny’s Child while also collaborating with generational up-and-comers like Eleanor Friedberger. Consciously or not, an artistic balance is struck in this compilation of looking to the past as a source of identity while not losing sight of the talent shaping the present and future. Consequently, there is a hard-won sense of freedom on Misfits & Mistakes, with Superchunk having little to prove and the security to explore. This luxury of age and accomplishment informs the essence of their late style.
“Explore” is a keyword. This album wanders a lot. It progresses mainly in chronological fashion, though not always. For example, the penultimate track is the oldest, a cover of “Group Sex” by the Circle Jerks recorded in 2000. Not only does this placement upend the historical flow, but the year 2000 gives you pause: this is well before the period of 2007 to 2023, as set out by the compilation’s title. The publicity information provided compares this album to a sculpture on the lawn of Glenn Danzig’s house in Los Angeles, which consists of debris from the 1994 Northridge earthquake—a fair description and fair enough.
With the curation of this album somewhat haphazard and the liner notes inconsistent about dates, it’s best to listen to what’s on hand. This LP moves intuitively rather than logically. It begins with tracks from their Leaves in the Gutter EP (2009), which broke the silence of their hiatus and re-established their sound without missing a beat on songs like “Learned to Surf”. The first cover on offer arrives shortly thereafter: “In Between Days” by the Cure, which Superchunk recorded for the AV Club’s Undercover web series in 2010, around the time of Majesty Shredding. It is excellent.
Like most great covers, “In Between Days” is not only a respectful homage, but it reveals something essential about the band doing the remake. The clutch of reimagined songs by the Misfits (“Horror Business”, “Where Eagles Dare”, and “Children in Heat”) and DC hardcore band Neon Christ (“Bad Influence”) perform a similar function by affirming Superchunk’s hardcore roots with unusual, inspired selections. The same can be said of their version of “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” by the Minutemen. These tracks amount to pedagogical history lessons, reminding listeners of the deeper reaches of the punk rock archive.
Superchunk’s cover of “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child goes in a different direction. It is less sexy than the original (no surprise), but it’s a fun reinterpretation that underscores the pop DNA at the heart of McCaughan et al. The loveliest track on Misfits & Mistakes is their sublime version of “Child’s Christmas in Wales” by John Cale off his canonical album Paris 1919 (1973). Superchunk remain faithful to the anthemic spirit of the original while updating its keyboard-based sound with their trademark noise rock guitars. It also allows Superchunk to escape their usual, tightly wound nature. Occasionally slowing down has always been a good thing for the band, whether on tracks like “Kicked In” from Foolish or, further afield, “Polaroid” from McCaughan’s solo project Portastatic (I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle, 1994), which is one of the best songs he has ever written.
Beyond cover songs, Misfits & Mistakes has a number of acoustic renditions of Superchunk recordings and a few live tracks. The former demonstrate McCaughan’s strengths as a guitarist, which can get lost with amps and the backing of a full band. “Breaking Down” (from I Hate Music, 2013) and “Erasure” (from What a Time to Be Alive) are standouts. The live material is limited to two tracks recorded at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, with Eleanor Friedberger (The Fiery Furnaces) guesting on vocals. The band steps out of its comfort zone with a freewheeling rendition of Patti Smith‘s “Free Money” with Friedberger as a resounding doppelganger for Smith. The second song from this show is the Ramones’ “Oh Oh I Love Her So”. Both tracks remind you how good Superchunk is live. Most of their live archive has been issued through their Clambake series.
As a document of late Superchunk, Misfits & Mistakes provides a fascinating glimpse of them trying new things while reaffirming their signature contributions to the indie rock canon. The sound of Superchunk has aged remarkably well, adapting to our fast-changing times as circumstances have dictated. I wish the liner notes were more concrete about dates and historical information, but perhaps that’s an academic concern.
Misfits & Mistakes ultimately documents what it means to be a musician – the leftover ideas, the cul-de-sacs, the contributions to political and other causes, and the cover songs that reveal senses of taste and nostalgia alike. Its kitchen sink approach depicts the very life of a group, imperfections and all. Indeed, just when you think you have heard everything, a song like “Up Against the Wall” (1978) by Tom Robinson Band, the British rock outfit, comes on, reminding you of the vastness of the past and why Superchunk have remained vital as guides, arbiters, and torchbearers for so long.