The once-mighty indie punk powerhouse Superchunk has been in a strange state of flux over their past few releases. Chapel Hill’s quartet, early darlings and innovators of U.S. indie rock, gave us our indie anthems with “Slack Motherfucker” and “Precision Auto,” an opus on failed relationships with 1993’s Foolish, the band’s highpoint, and of course, “best indie label runner-up,” Merge Records. Lately, though, Mac McCaughan and Company have had an ear turned to the bands they’ve been signing, which tend to be primarily of the Elephant 6 variety. This has led to the incorporation of keyboards, instrumentation and, yep, a little too much wussiness. Sure, new ideas and sound progression are great. But please, where is the kick ass Superchunk I grew up on? I, right along with many others, have stopped paying much attention.
Now we’re presented with this little oddity, the band’s score to early Japanese filmmaker Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, a surrealist experimentation set in a psychiatric ward. Thought lost after it was made in 1926, a print was found in the garden shed of Kinagusa’s home. This score was recorded live as the film was presented at the Castro Theater at the 2002 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Opening as any old Japanese film should, with a haunting melodica, the “Intro/Titles” does just what it should, giving us a sense of the atmosphere that will be created over the rest of the record. Guitars eventually tune in, but essentially we’re presented with a repeating riff on most tracks. Effective I suppose, since the film takes place in an insane asylum, but how the hell should I know, since the film is harder to find than those early Interpol EPs. By the way, there are only 2500 pressings of this record, so either the band recognizes that interest in this record will be slim to nil or they’re going for the same rarity that is Kinugasa’s fan base.
The winning tracks of the score appear back to back in the middle, “Madness Montage” then “Don’t Look Back.” The former creates a unique chaos by incorporating just about every instrument that appears on the record into a layered sense of pandemonium. Again, I can only assume this works for what must be a crucial scene in the film. “Don’t Look Back” is the album’s true keeper though, a sad guitar lament that echoes Painful-era Yo La Tengo. This segues into “Wives and Daughters,”
The Chunk have pulled off what they clearly set out to accomplish here — giving a modern and haunting score to a lost art film that must have affected them in many ways. Unintentionally, however, they may be further alienating their early fans. Perhaps this is in fact the reason for the small pressing. This sounds very little like the old or new Superchunk, so it’s recommended for those who need to have the entire discography. Ultimately, it’s only worth a few listens. Until, perhaps, A Page of Madness finds an audience.