The Superchunk that began their hiatus in the early ’00s after releasing Here’s to Shutting Up and the Superchunk that released No Pocky For Kitty in 1991 were the same band, but the decade that separated them also brought about some significant changes. Here’s to Shutting Up, along with its two predecessors, Come Pick Me Up and Indoor Living, were more measured, mature efforts, laden with strings and rich textures, a far cry from the hyperactive indie punk which became the foundation of the band’s early work. But nearly another decade has passed since the group applied the brakes, and Superchunk has a brand new album on the horizon, one which may very well signal another new change in direction.
Yet coinciding with the release of Superchunk’s new album is the reissue and remaster of two of the band’s classic albums, No Pocky For Kitty and On the Mouth. Originally released on Matador, it seems only appropriate that they should eventually find their way home on the label the band launched, and for that matter, during the year they make their triumphant return. Inevitably, artistic returns become catalysts for nostalgia and critical re-appraisal, so Merge and Superchunk are just meeting us halfway. And now is as good a time as any, perhaps even better, to re-examine these earlier albums.
Released just a year after Superchunk’s first great single, “Slack Motherfucker,” No Pocky For Kitty was the band’s first great album. Where peers like Guided by Voices and Pavement were incorporating classic rock influences into their lo-fi indie pop, Superchunk were far more driven by punk rock energy. That isn’t to say they didn’t have a touch of classic rock melodicism as well, but Superchunk were more Buzzcocks than The Who. This spunky, emotive energy became far less novel in the late ’90s when reusing the Superchunk formula became known as “emo,” which was then re-defined a half-decade later. But on No Pocky For Kitty, Superchunk practically perfected their mixture of manic energy with hooks, glorious hooks.
The dizzying punch and harmonic scratches of “Skip Steps 1 and 3” kicks off the album with one hell of a bang, matching the dissonant energy of bands like Jawbox or Fugazi with a more pop-friendly approach. And like expert mixtape engineers, the band only raises the ante with “Seed Toss,” which is not just one of the album’s best tracks, but one of the strongest in the band’s canon. Ditto for “Punch Me Harder,” the album’s most intense and explosive rocker. And album closer “Throwing Things,” at a mere three and a half minutes, is practically epic, a soaring pop gem that closes the album with the kind of dense but mature songcraft that they would later flesh out into more varied compositions.
A natural progression from No Pocky For Kitty, On the Mouth maintains the youthfulness and ferocity of its predecessor, yet with a stronger complexity in its melodic constructions. “Precision Auto” sets the tone for the album, blasting off with Jawbox-like intensity as Mac McCaughan dispenses his everyman ‘I won’t back down’ verses (“Have you got a minute? Can you fit me into it?“). “From the Curve,” meanwhile, is driven by a massive squall of guitars, making the band sound even more massive, while the simpler, spunkier “For Tension” is Superchunk at their most immediate. Yet one of the album’s highest peaks, “The Question Is How Fast,” is deep within side two. Despite some awkwardly worded lyrics (“this is not a test/ it’s just an ask“), the song is an unstoppable force of abrasive riffs and unsinkable melody.
In the dozen years in which Superchunk were one of the most active and most visible indie rock outfits, the Chapel Hill quartet didn’t put out a bad album. And from No Pocky through Come On Pick Me Up, their output was never anything less than spectacular. The band’s Matador era, however, is a particularly notable period, for while their self-titled debut was a good enough album, No Pocky For Kitty and On the Mouth were the band’s first two great ones.
Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle
Jawbox – Novelty
The Buzzcocks – Another Music In a Different Kitchen
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.