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'You can't pretend you're 18': Superchunk and the Vaselines, middle-aged and proud

October 17, 2010 |  6:39 pm

Superchunk_4i

There are ways, no doubt, to age respectfully in rock 'n' roll. Recent releases offer plenty of examples, be it the graceful folksiness of John Mellencamp or the still-ornery experimentation of Neil Young. Then there are the paths taken by Superchunk and the Vaselines, who have brought an end to years of relative dormancy with sarcasm.

It's there in the video for Superchunk's "Digging for Something," a sly, tongue-in-cheek mockery of artists who are on the cash-in reunion circuit. Conceived by former "Daily Show" scribe Scott Jacobson, the clip features an alternate-universe Superchunk, one containing just "one original member" and more interested in exploitation than new material.

Though not designed as such, it serves as an insta-buffer to potential critics. Superchunk's "Majesty Shredding," the act's first album since 2001, dispenses with the rock 'n' roll signs of maturity that permeated that year's "Here's to Shutting Up." This isn't an album for slowing things down and piling on strings; the layered guitars of "Majesty" are sleek, turning a no-nonsense riff on perseverance such as "Learned to Surf" into a celebratory anthem.

"It was one of my intentions to have it be a punk rock record, something that was fun to make and play live," said Mac McCaughan, who with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance splits time running North Carolina's venerable, 21-year-old indie Merge Records. "That was intentional, and it was also practical. Writing a record like 'Here's to Shutting Up' involves hours and hours in the garage, with everyone just jamming and playing different instruments and experimenting with different sounds. We didn't have time to make a record that way."

A more rancorous bile permeates nearly all of the Vaselines' "Sex With an X," the act's first effort in about two decades. The once-boyfriend/girlfriend duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee broke up and flamed out in 1989, and they're
not looking back with nostalgia.

Songs such as "I Hate the 80's" are all jolly cynicism, with loose, '60s guitars and brimming keyboards, and the pair seem on a mission to prove they're most certainly not out to recapture their youth. There's no romance in the exuberant, three-minute romp of "Overweight but Over You," where a lifelong "diet of cold rejection" is reason enough to let one's body go.

Vaselines "We realized that pressure was on us," Kelly said when asked about the grown-up humor of "Sex With an X." "When we made the first record 20 years ago, we were making it for ourselves. We weren't thinking about who was going to listen to it."

The pair of scrappy, guitar-based indie bands, which will share a bill at Hollywood's Music Box on Tuesday, both have connections to the slacker rock of the '90s underground.

Though the Vaselines' bratty debut "Dum Dum" was cut before 1990, it was Nirvana's Kurt Cobain who later turned the act into cult heroes, most notably by covering the Vaselines' "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." The Cobain attention ultimately resulted in the act's music being published by Seattle's Sub Pop Records, the label that released "Sex With an X."

McCaughan and Ballance of Superchunk, however, found themselves spending more time taking care of bands other than their own. Long before Merge had a No.1 debut on the U.S. pop charts this year with orchestral rockers the Arcade Fire, other acts on their label were outpacing Superchunk in terms of sales.

Merge was taking off as Superchunk was winding down. When "Here's to Shutting Up" was issued a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, the fatigue seemed magnified. "That contributed to the burnout," McCaughan said. "We went to Japan, Europe and the U.S. with no break, and we spent three months playing to people who
were totally bummed out."

Both acts are releasing new albums into a vastly different indie market. Merge has placed four top-10 albums in its two-decade-plus history, and all have come in 2010.

With "Majesty Shredding," Superchunk itself scored its first-ever appearance on the U.S. pop charts, landing at No. 85 after selling 8,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

McCaughan notes that Superchunk's sales are not on par with those during the act's height in the mid-'90s and that its recent chart positioning is more reflective of an overall down market. "Our sales are not higher than they were during [1995 album] ‘Here's Where the Strings Come In,' but they're higher than our last album," he said.

Being back on the road with Superchunk, however, is an escape from some of the business realties, but not life in general. "You can't pretend you're not older," said McCaughan, now a family man. "You can't pretend you're 18. But if you haven't lost your enthusiasm, hopefully that shows.

"Well, you can pretend you're 18 when you're playing the show," McCaughan continued, "but then you're going to be paying for it the next day."

--Todd Martens

Superchunk and the Vaselines, Tuesday, Oct, 19 at the Music Box, 6126 Hollywood Blvd. Telekenis opens. Tickets are $23.50, not including various surcharges, and available via Ticketmaster.

Images, from top: Superchunk (Credit: Jason Arthurs); The Vaselines (Credit: Wattie Cheung)

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