1:22 pm Sep. 20, 2010
It was unclear just who was throwing the water balloons at last night's Superchunk show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, but the band, back in town with Majesty Shredding, their ninth full-length record and first since 2001, were clearly tickled that their fans still had it in them.
"You guys are rowdy tonight," singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan told the packed house of former teenagers halfway through the set, by way of congratulations. "Good for you."
Even in their '90s heyday, Superchunk was never as hip as their indie contemporaries: they didn't have Pavement's macho, arty swagger, Luna's bedroom-eyed sex appeal or Yo La Tengo's eggheady sophistication. Instead, they turned their laid-back cords-and-ringer geniality into something like an ethos, thrashing out a reliable stream of unapologetically accessible two-and-a-half minute fist-pumpers on such unpretentious topics as crushes, breakups, and mowing the lawn. And even with cool-kids Pavement playing a competing show elsewhere in Brooklyn last night, cool seemed very much beside the point. As the band pointedly reminded everyone in an energetic rendition of Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)—as close to a manifesto as they've ever recorded—art is often about nothing more than shaking your ass.
Everyone shook their asses. With the band almost entirely eschewing the more introspective, mid-tempo and "mature" numbers of their previous few albums in favor of the overcaffeinated pop-punk that they've returned to with Majesty Shredding, it could have been nothing but an exercise in nostalgia. But despite a '90s revival currently in full Laura Ashley bloom, the show felt more like a wistful last pogoing hurrah for an audience that seemed both surprised at and shrugglingly at ease with its own advancing age, maybe a little balder and paunchier than before but otherwise content to dance, cheerfully heckle in semi-sobriety, and toss a few stupid water balloons. "Why so serious/When it's only your life that's at stake?" Superchunk asked.
It could have been a little depressing if not for the fact that Superchunk's been an overgrown teenager of a band for most of their 21-year career—and they put on the same show as ever. It was just that the songs, which used to be about being young, were now about growing up. McCaughan jumped and contorted across the stage in a hopelessly-wrinkled and way-too-small button-down, looking like a kid playing rock star in the privacy of his parents' basement while bassist Laura Ballance regarded him from a few feet away with exasperated, Daria-like affection. They were older now, but even though the haze of cigarette smoke in the club had been replaced with the glow of iPhone screens, everything else was mostly the same as ever.
Ballance and McCaughan's now long-ago romance has always threaded a Stevie-and-Lindseyish narrative into Superchunk's recordings, and it's still their chemistry that gives the band's mostly straight-ahead shredders the whiff of poignance in live performance. Both separately married now, with separate sets of children, they've remained both bandmates and business partners. In the years since their last album, Here's to Shutting Up, they've slowly turned Merge Records—the company they formed together to release Superchunk's first single in 1989—into an indie superlabel and one of the few success stories in the post-Napster music industry.
Which is why the the band's signature Slack Motherfucker, a blistering anthem for disillusioned postgrads slogging through dead-end Kinko's employment, took on an ironic edge now that Mac and Laura are as much record execs as rock stars. As Mac closed down the show warbling "I'm working / but I'm not working for you," a last water balloon flying through the air, it was only a reminder that the slacker king of 1990 now owns the whole motherfucking company.