In my review of Superchunk’s No Pocky for Kitty, I said it was a little hard to put these records in historical context given that they haven’t largely been memorialized as classic, must-listen albums. Besides, Superchunk defied the sort of rote classification that music writers love to retroactively build around a band. In the introduction to Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small (helluva title!), Ryan Adams writes, “The bands envied Superchunk (of course) because Superchunk were effortlessly great. They weren’t trying to be anyone.” In the context of their career, On the Mouth, their third album, was the final record they put out for Matador before fully switching over to Merge, and their most sonically exhilarating release to date.
From the start, it keeps in the same combative/noisy vein as their previous material, but the intensity has been dialed up. The screeching feedback on songs like “From the Curve” and “Precision Auto” is almost unpleasant, and man, that guitar tone is just crushing. It’s hard to imagine listening to this on headphones unless you want your head to pound like Bill Pullman in Lost Highway. The lyrics are a tad distant: You’d think a song title like “I Guess I Remembered It Wrong” could be one of the most devastatingly personal pre-Pinkerton songs of the ‘90s, but singer Mac McCoughan just circles around the tip of the pathos iceberg without diving any deeper. His lyrics strike a poetic narrative tone — “I remember digging up the yard/ I remember carrying you from the car/ And I stuffed the valuables into the seat/ Everything was brighter than it seemed” — without ever getting too direct.
But look, if you’re gotten three albums into Superchunk, you know what they sound like: unrelenting, hellraising, driving, ear-splitting, pounding, et cetera. Only so many buzz words and adjectives can be used to describe a sound that remains pretty consistent throughout the album. There are no acoustic ballads, no 17-minute prog suites, no instrumental pieces. The most delicate they get is with the muted strumming that opens up “The Question Is How Fast,” but even that song quickly turns into a fuzz-fest. If you place a heavy premium on innovation and experimentation, you can probably move on after their first record, and if you’re cynical you could even accuse the album of sounding same-y, of playing it safe within their previously defined sonic parameters.
But like Ryan Adams wrote, Superchunk weren’t trying to be anything else than a solid rock band; there’s no pretense of aspirations, no embarrassing lyrics that try to soar a little too high, no half-cooked musical ideas that don’t really gel. (There’s an awkward misstep on the six-minute-long — six minutes! — “Swallow That” but hey, give ‘em credit for trying.) They stick to what they do well and throw a mess of energy behind it.
I’m fine with that, and On the Mouth is a slightly stronger album than No Pocky for Kitty (the other album being reissued this month in anticipation of the band’s upcoming ninth studio album) because it’s a better display of the Superchunk sound, a whirling chum of dyspeptic diagnostic rock (and you thought I was done with buzz words). It’s not the most ambitious material in the world — you can figure out what their ethos is about 20 seconds into track one. But hell, it would be silly to judge them by what they’re not, and in the timeline of totally rockin’ albums from the ‘90s, On the Mouth has its place.