"Here is a song for the kids down on the corner," Mac McCaughan sings in that famously trembling and tenuous tenor in "My Gap Feels Weird," one of the most instantly lovable tracks on the eagerly awaited new album from Chapel Hill, North Carolina's veteran indie-rock institution Superchunk. "With a look that tells you you don't even know them/ And you never will."
McCaughan and his bandmates are older and wiser these days: The guitarist and vocalist is 43, and his right-hand woman, bassist Laura Ballance, with whom he co-founded and continues to run the Merge Records label rightly revered by the Pitchfork generation that followed, is 42. But Superchunk isn't bemoaning its alienation from "these kids today" in that couplet or anywhere else on "Majesty Shredding." Rather, I hear the group issuing a challenge: "We're back, we're excited to be here, we're making a joyful noise, and we want all of you -- especially you taciturn emo mopes and twee indie over-thinkers -- to lose yourselves in it. Come on!"
Though the quartet never officially broke up -- it continued to sporadically pop up here and there with the odd compilation track or one-off celebratory gig -- it's been nine long years since its last album. Coming on the heels of Merge's 20th anniversary celebration last year and an engaging book commemorating and charting its accomplishments (Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small), it's no surprise that the new disc, the ninth full album of its career, is being greeted as "a return to form." Indeed, it's my favorite Superchunk record since the enduring "No Pocky for Kitty" back in 1991.
Not that the group ever really let us down; it's just that its last few releases before the unofficial break grew increasingly baroque. As the indie patrons of the much-lauded Elephant 6 bands (especially Neutral Milk Hotel) and the Arcade Fire, it must have been hard to resist adding some strings and a little more elaborate orchestration, though that simply put another layer or two between the listener and the factor that always has been the band's biggest charm: The sheer exuberance pouring out of the speakers from four people who genuinely love making music together.
That may be an intangible X factor, but it's real, it's irresistible, and it's present in spades in short, simple, straightforward and relatively pared-down indie guitar-pop gems such as "Rosemarie," "Crossed Wires," "Learned to Surf," and"¦ well, pretty much every one of these 11 tracks. Whether or not you missed the Superchunk folks over the last decade, one listen will convince you it's good to have them back.
Superchunk, "Majesty Shredding" (Merge) Rating: 3.5/4