Christmas songs are as big a part of the season as crowded shopping malls and spiked eggnog, but there are only so many times you can hear “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” without wanting to wretch just a little. Here are some suggestions for compiling a Yuletide playlist that perhaps isn’t quite so musty. Much of the music can be purchased or ordered locally at Guestroom Records, Size Records and the like.
Record Store Day (RSD) has become an audiophile’s Christmas since its inception in 2008, celebrating independently owned record stores with exclusive titles and limited-edition releases from everyone from The Beatles to Arcade Fire.
Well, here’s an album reissue originally produced about 20 some-odd years later far more appropriate for the consumer.
Guitar-wise, a lot changes in two decades, and Superchunk were at the head of the pack when it came to ’90s riff-driven rock ’n’ roll. Inspired by the ’80s punk do-it-yourself-and-work-effin’-hard-at-it ethic, “Foolish” was recorded amid a perfect storm of inspiration, personnel and divergence.
Matador Records distributed the band’s first three albums, endearing them to their built-in indie audience throughout the States and Europe, but when the label (then one of the largest and most notable indies) entered into a partnership with Atlantic Records, the band decided to release “Foolish” on Merge Records, which singer Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance had founded the same year as their band. In short, they stayed “indie” at a time when boatloads of other bands were only pretending to.
In similar punk form, the band – rather amazingly, considering the intricacy of their vocal harmonies – laid “Foolish” to track in a blistering three days. Perhaps this is one reason the guitars sound so hurried and anguished, the other likely the fact that McCaughan and Ballance split up only shortly before they entered the studio. The album’s stuffed full of the evidence of torn-up romance, with lines like “and it’s stretching out my skin,” “you left me in this disarray / what am I supposed to say?” and “my hand on your heart had been replaced.” The range and emotional depth is most impressive when you compare them with the simplistic lyrics to “Slack Motherfucker,” and then realize that the band didn’t sacrifice a single ounce of energy in an attempt to sound more mature. In short, they hunkered down and recorded a great album.
It’s also worth noting that Brian Paulson, who produced the album in Minneapolis, also mixed it in Steve Albini’s home studio in Chicago. No wonder the guitars sound so scuzzy and offensive.
And while “Foolish” hits hardest in the early going (classics “First Part” and “Driveway to Driveway” are among their catalogue’s most beloved, and come in the first few minutes), the album’s unwinding end is what pulverizes your memory, doing to your heart what no wall of reverb could ever do to your ears. “In a Stage Whisper” is so sadly autobiographical (and nostalgic, I’d imagine, for anybody who ever saw the band live at their peak) that one wonders about (and hopes for) reconciliation between McCaughan and Ballance.
Superchunk were certainly nothing if not timely. And this reissue comes at a time most appropriate. —Matt Carney