Superchunk Plays "Foolish": A 25th Anniversary Acoustic Performance
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The urgency of current events after the demoralizing 2016 election gave Mac, Laura, Jim, and Jon of Superchunk the momentum to make something new sooner than later. “It would be strange to be in a band, at least our band, and make a record that completely ignored the surrounding circumstances that we live in and that our kids are going to grow up in.” Enter What a Time to Be Alive, Superchunk’s first album in over four years. It’s a record, says Mac, “about a pretty dire and depressing situation but hopefully not a record that is dire and depressing to listen to.”
Indeed, like so much of Superchunk’s music in the band’s nearly three decades together, the songs on What a Time to Be Alive meet rage and anxiety head-on with the catharsis and exhilaration of loud punk fire and vulnerable pop energy. Like 2013’s I Hate Music, which focused on death, loss, and the role of music in an aging life, What a Time to Be Alive brings spirit to the frontlines of pain—it’s as defiant as it is despairing, as much a call to arms as a throwing up of hands.
Written almost entirely between November 2016 and February 2017, What a Time to Be Alive was recorded and mixed by Beau Sorenson, who also worked on I Hate Music. The record also has more guest backing vocalists than any previous Superchunk album, including Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit), Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), Skylar Gudasz, and David Bazan.
Whether one seeks it out or it simply presents itself, change is an inevitability. Should one embrace it? Grapple with it? Fight it? These are the questions Martin Frawley unpacks as he steps into the spotlight for Undone at 31, his first album as a solo artist and the start of a new chapter for the Melbourne songwriter.
Named for the year in his life when the bottom fell out following a long-term romantic partnership, Frawley sequenced Undone at 31 chronologically to emphasize his journey. He took time off from drinking after mistakes and missteps in his Australian pubs, as chronicled on “End of the Bar,” an early standout that’s equal parts Velvet Underground cool and outlaw country. While visiting Brooklyn during that period, Frawley found a collaborator in Stewart Bronaugh (Angel Olsen, Lionlimb) who, as he says, “gave me confidence and strength when I needed it the most,” and after bonding over albums by John Cale, Anna Domino, and Frank Ocean, “knew where I needed to take the music.”
Frawley documents his attempts to turn over a new leaf throughout the lyrics of Undone at 31, as well as his desire to “see the world in the dark” as sung so clearly on “Just Like the Rest.” To reinforce this new path forward and move away from the familiar, he employed fresh, imaginative approaches in the recording studio as well. “We spent three weeks in John Lee’s Phaedra Studios in Melbourne’s Coburg neighborhood,” Frawley explains. “First week tracking, second week experimenting, third week mixing.” That experimentation included a subtractive process of layering three drum takes as the foundation for the Jacques Dutronc-vibing “Chain Reaction” before pulling out pieces like a Jenga tower to arrive at the final result, as well as Bronaugh’s Robert Quine-channeling pinch harmonics throughout “You Can’t Win.”
Those familiar with Frawley’s time as co-leader of Twerps will take comfort in hearing his deceptively simple songwriting is still intact, but the big reveal here is how new instrumentation and influences seamlessly expand Frawley’s playground. It might take several listens for one to realize Frawley is singing “Something About Me” over just violin, Moog, and a Graceland-esque bassline, or to appreciate the PB+J pairing of Fender Rhodes and lap steel on “Where the Heart Is,” which serves as Undone at 31’s twist ending. Frawley’s album does not shy away from morbid musings and raw emotions that come with a breakup, and like Shoot Out the Lights or Sea Change, Undone at 31’s tunefulness and exploration combined are what elevate the music above the melancholy subject matter.
You don’t need an album (or its bio, for that matter) to tell you change is inevitable. But with Undone at 31, our new protagonist summons the courage and perspective to unpack and share his experience in the hopes that in spurring himself to carry on, he inspires his listeners as well. Because as Martin writes, “That’s what you want, right? To learn. I felt up, down, scared, and now I’m really scared of what I have made and what people will think, but I’d rather that than any other Feeling.”
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