Friday, August 30, 2013

Life, death and Superchunk. A review (of sorts)

"I hate music. What is it worth? It can't bring anyone back to this earth."

-- Superchunk

Mid-August 2008. I hadn't heard from my friend Robert in well over a week. It was a particularly noteworthy silence because Robert was the most avid volleyball player I knew, and he had just done something previously unheard of for him -- failed to respond to an email about a pickup volleyball game. Then there was his voice-mailbox: strangely full, and unable to accept another message. So I called one of his best friends, who I knew lived nearby him, and, when Phil said he also hadn't heard from Robert in an unusually long time, he agreed to stop by his place. Robert could be the most outgoing guy ever, or a bit of a recluse. It depended on his mood at the time. I was vaguely concerned, but not very....

Half an hour later, Phil called back, "Steve, I got over to his place when they were carrying Robert out. He's been dead for a few days."

I somehow made it to age 46 before a close friend died, and for that I feel lucky. But that didn't make it any easier. Robert had diabetes. Mind you, he hadn't *told* a lot of people about the diagnosis when it happened. It was a few years before I knew it and I found out in maybe 2006 or 7 when he explained his then-recent hospitalization for an abcessed leg wound: "Uhh, I have been kind of treating my diabetes with Coca-Cola." I mildly flipped because that particular disease killed a close relative or two, but he swore he was getting his shit together. And, thereafter, his outward appearance -- although not a picture of health -- was of someone who seemed to be making some lifestyle changes.

See, I'm pretty leave-you-alone libertarian, and I don't meddle in people's personal lives unless they offer details and ask for advice, so when he said he was good/better, I took him at his word.

Robert and I were primarily music buddies. I never thought of him as someone who was likely to have picked up someone's latest album, but he was more dependable than *anyone* I knew to go see a live band. He would always have only one question, invariably worded this way: "You know exactly what I like -- I am a tempo junkie. So will I like it?" The dude liked loud/fast punk rock. It didn't *all* have to be loud/fast, but extreme tempo shifts were guaranteed to rope him right into a band's loyal following.
And the more his life spiraled downward a bit those last few years -- debt was a recurring issue, and shitty (or, eventually, no) health insurance was the result -- the more a good raucous few hours of punk rock would seem to be a revitalizing force for him.

The last time I saw Robert was a Mission of Burma show that summer of 2008. It was in the basement of the First Unitarian Church in Philly -- a vile, ungodly hot place that people only look *back* upon in reverence as some sort of hallowed musical ground after they are done suffering there. When you are actually in that swampy rain forest of a room, especially in the summer, the place is an awful melange of bodies, sweat and bad sound, like a crowded Khmer Rouge prison into which nearly-indecipherable loud music is piped via decaying speakers while you swear it is so humid that at any moment toxic raindrops will begin to drip from the low ceiling above. It takes a mighty band to overcome that shit. But I have seen a few do it: Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Fucked Up, Radio Birdman, and, that night, Mission of Burma.

Prior to the show, Robert had seemed a bit down. We had skipped the opener to grab a cup of coffee in a nearby shop. He was never much of a drinker, but the man loved iced decaf like no one I knew. He had complained then a bit about recurring health issues, but, as always, the Burma show reinvigorated him. Indeed, he seemed particularly blown away at the end of that night at the transformative powers of balls-out (post)punk.

Which somehow, in the most roundabout way ever, gets us to the new Superchunk album....

Mid-August 2013. Just about five years to the day since Robert died.

Timing is everything, says the drummer....and this Superchunk album, released August 20, was perfectly calculated for my mood. I miss my friend. And they miss one too.

In 2012, Superchunk lost a close friend named David Doernberg. The inability of music to overcome extreme loss juxtaposed with the (imperfect) healing and rejuvenative power of blasting out cathartic tunes, whether in the van or onstage, are recurring themes of the new album, titled I Hate Music.

It's a little slice of genius. They don't hate music. They hate its inability to beat down *all* the cosmic shitstorm of life, and they simultaneously celebrate its power to do so much to make life better.

When I first heard the record open with an acoustic guitar, I thought, "Whaaaaa?!" because it's not the first thing that comes to mind with this band, but quickly, the amps turn up and the band perilously and expertly balances a path through lyrics full of loss and redemption and music that is never short of compelling and urgent. A few years back, my buddy Lance penned a paean to Superchunk that still holds up to this day (right down to pegging Jon Wurster as one of the best of the best drummers out there). So go read that, and I'll spare you from a repetitive blast of gushing on my part. But let's just say that this is melodic punk(ish) rock for punk rockers who are getting a little long in the tooth. And, being there myself, I'm down with that in a big way. Life can be really fucking heavy at this point, but simultaneously full of more joy than I ever remember. Rather than go track by track through this amazing little record, you can go read the Pitchfork review if you want extreme details, but suffice it to say that if you've previously ridden the wave of awesome that is Superchunk, you will find plenty to love here, along with a lyrical depth and wisdom that I don't think they have ever equaled. They blast. They roar. They yell. They have a ball. You should get this album.

Superchunk will be in Philly on September 24. I'll be there, minus a friend who would have loved every fucking second of it.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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