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Recording:
  Foolish  
 
Artist:
 

Superchunk

 
 
Label:
 

Merge

 
 
Release Date:
 

19.April.1994

 
 
Reviewed by:
  PostLibyan, Tracers, and Malimus  
         
 
Rating:
   
         
      Review  
 
PostLibyan:
  Ah, Superchunk's fourth full-length album. This is my entry point into what has become one of my favorite bands. I have a very long history with this record, and will try to keep my ramblings under ten pages...  
         
 
Brendan:
  You had better be joking about that.  
         
 
Tracers:
  Don't tempt us!  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

First, some background.

In the summer of 1994 i was working at a modem factory in Alpharetta. Yes, believe it or not at that time actual computer things were manufactured in Georgia, not Malaysia. Weird i know, but that's not the important part of the story. You see, at the time i lived in Brookhaven, and had a long commute on GA 400 every day. This was long before MP3, and i didn't even have a CD player in that car, so i listened to the radio, specifically Album 88. Album 88 is a great college station that plays interesting things, but they have always been bad about telling you the name of the song. Well, that's not exactly true, they play a set of 10 songs or so, then the DJ would recount what he had played. So if you heard a song you liked, you needed to remember if it was the fourth one back, or the fifth, etc. When negotiating the irritating Atlanta traffic, keeping all of that straight is somewhat difficult.

All summer long i kept hearing this song that had a loping beat, chiming guitars, and some guy wailing about driveways, but i never could figure out who it was. Then one evening, as i was driving by the old Atlanta CD store in Brookhaven, that song was the last one of a set. Afterwards, the DJ came on and said, "That was Driveway to Driveway by Superchunk off of their newest album." I swerved across traffic to make the strip mall with Atlanta CD, walked in and accosted the employee to find me this "Superchunk". There were actually a couple of different Superchunk CDs in stock, but i picked up the one with Driveway to Driveway on it.

I drove home, ate some sort of dinner, and unwrapped the CD. It did not have a lot in the way of liner notes, but whatever. I put it in the player...

And a wash of guitars started, one grinding slowly while another picked out a light arpeggio. The two guitars danced for a minute, until drums, bass, and voice all kicked in.

I dreamed you chased down the car
Waving a sign that made no sense
I drifted in and out
I read the sign out loud
Like a fool

The vocalist, who was kind of high-pitched, crooned that last word, a long lament that stretched on as the song slowly built and built.

And i was hooked.

 
         
 
Mailmus:
 

There are times when I promise Brendan reviews, and then fail to deliver them. In fact, the times I fail to deliver probably outnumber the times I actually provide useful material these days. For the most part, this is a function of my being easily distracted and flaky. Promised write-ups just disappear into the mists of "Oh, I think I'll go do this other thing today instead." This is not one of those times.

I am late delivering my thoughts on Foolish, as usual. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with distraction of general flakiness. It has everything to do with an inability to describe the moon.

PostLibyan and I met in college in 1991. We were both philosophy majors at a small liberal arts school on the north side of Atlanta. Tracers was a poli-sci major at the same time. PostLibyan and I became friends attending classes together. There's little that will bond you to a compatriot like a 9AM History of Philosophy course detailing the thinking of the Middle Ages. Anyway, the point is not to recount our college years. The point is that PostLibyan and I have always been philosophy dorks, which means our conversations always revolve around weird philosophy ideas and anecdotes.

One of our "go-to" descriptions is a story from Taoist thinking, regarding the impossibility of communication outside of common experience. There's a story about a monk and master, and the monk is trying to describe the moon, and he fails repeatedly, because no amount of description can relay the majesty of the full moon painted large across the night sky. The master, recognizing the impossibility of language, simply points to the moon. I have this problem with Superchunk in general, and Foolish specifically. I can't really describe it properly. Trust me, I've tried. I've attempted to convey the essence of Foolish to any number of friends over the course of the years, and I've not once been successful. Inevitably, I am reduced to grunts and animal sounds, and a huff-and-gruff exclamation to the effect of "Good lord, son, just listen to that." I can't explain Foolish. All I can do is play the disc, try to get you to listen, and point towards the moon in awe.

 
         
 
PostLibyan:
  Like a Fool, the first song on this record, meanders at a medium tempo, the guitars grinding against the dull thud of the drums. After about three and a half minutes, the vocals fade and the band rocks out, the guitars wailing in solos, the whole band just having fun playing their instruments.  
         
 
Mailmus:
 

That's a good job of noting the way it opens. Jim picks out a lonely chord of whole notes. Mac plays a repeated arpeggio against it, in eights. (Maybe the guitar parts are flipped, and Mac plays the chords. Doesn't really matter.) It's a four bar sequence, repeated four times, for a total of sixteen bars in about 50 seconds. Slow, lingering, and melancholy as all hell. On the 17th bar the sequence stops, the arpeggios end entirely and they drop into the softest counter-chords for four more measures. And then the kick comes. The soft, two string strumming fills in, pumps up to true power chording, and the rhythm section kicks in. Four more measures of thrust, and then the lyrics start. At the 1:25 mark. That's an eternity for a punk rock band, by the way.

 
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

The next song is a completely different creature. After the last, long notes of Like a Fool fades out, The First Part kicks in with an insistent drum beat, and the guitars are faster, one strumming and one picking furious notes. "So this is the first part," McCaughan screams, and then yells some sort of nonsense as musical chaos happens around him. This song moves fast, with nice jangly verses and a chorus that crunches along as McCaughan wails.

On my first listen, i was impressed at the diversity Superchunk had managed to show in just ten minutes. To this day i still think that this is the perfect way to start a record. Begin with a long, slow, melancholy fade in, then explode with fast guitars and yelling. Hell yeah! (Actually, now that i think about it, that's pretty much what Archers of Loaf did on Vee Vee as well. Must be a North Carolina thing.)

 
         
 
Malimus:
  The First Part opens with those toe-tapping drums, those crunchy fun little guitar riffs. Then Mac: "So this is the first part. We're drunk and the selfless, relentless caresses. How long does the first part last? Before we make our respective messes." Every time I hear that line, every time I hear this album at any point, I think of the Buzzcocks' Ever Fallen In Love? Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with? Foolish is about that.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

Water Wings also starts furiously, the guitars and drums all going at a breakneck speed. The drums part and one guitar wails a long note, then the band is at it, that high-pitched voice bellowing. The beat is toe-tappingly good, and this song never fails to put me in a good mood: nothing like a guitar heavy song just tearing along to get the heart pumping, and put a smile on your face. Well, my face at least.

Malimus and i argued about this once, in the late 1990s sometime. I seem to remember that we were in the car, on the way to Athens to see some band or another, when Water Wings came on the stereo and i said, "This song is so happy."

He turned to look at me. "No it's not."

"Sure, just listen to this beat and try not to be happy."

Pointing at the car stereo he sang along with the chorus,

She pointed at the black cloud in the sky
Said that's what happens when you're learning to fly
She said those wings are just a disguise
And you cannot make me cry
She pointed at the black cloud in the sky
Yeah that's what happens.
"Huh," i said. "Well, i guess i don't really listen to the lyrics. The beat and the tempo make me happy." I am sure that Malimus continued to mock me for some time after this, as is his wont to do. But he's right in a way. Water Wings is indicative of a general lyrical darkness on this album. If you pay attention to the lyrics, then Foolish is not an uplifting listen, even if i think the music behind the lyrics is often as joyous as anything Superchunk have ever done.
 
         
 
Tracers:
  Ah...to this day, I remember that conversation. The three of us were indeed on our way to Athens. And the band we were going to see was in fact Superchunk.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

We were going to see Superchunk play the 40 Watt, if memory serves.

Water Wings is such a brutal song, not only because the lyrics are so painful, but because the rending lyrics are paired with such a happy little tune. The song itself and this is true of the album in general balances the tension of the lyrics' anger and hurt against the upbeat music itself, in much the same way that the relationship that's being documented is torn between the joy of being in love (the music) and the pain of having it all come apart at the seams (the words.) "Was it worth the wait? Is that the wall where you marked off the days?"

 
         
 
PostLibyan:
  For some reason, McCaughan was an angry bitter man when they recorded this.  
         
 
Mailmus:
  Lyrically, Foolish is an album about heartbreak and pain. There's no getting around that fact. Yes, the music of many of these songs are upbeat and uptempo. They are pogo friendly, both in concert and "in your head." But the songs all of them when you break them open and figure out what Mac's singing about, are the songs you write when you've had your heart ripped out of your chest and shown to you while it's still beating uselessly. And it's about knowing you probably deserved it.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

Yeah, this is pretty much the definitiion of "a breakup album".

Perhaps that is why, in general, Superchunk do not perform songs from this album live. I even saw them in 1995 at Lollapalooza, where they played the main stage in Atlanta for one reason or another, and aside from a memorable rendition of Like a Fool, i don't remember too much of this album being performed. I distinctly remember being disappointed about that, even if that show was my introduction to their earlier catalog.

Now, the exception to this "don't perform Foolish live" rule is the fourth tune, Driveway to Driveway, which was a hit for Superchunk. This is the radio song that drew me to them, and it is a nice, mid-tempoed rocker. The drums are a languid thumping, but the guitars chime furiously. McCaughan again wails, some tale about being drunk and falling, bruising himself on some driveway. It's a great tune, with an immediately recognizable melody, and Superchunk do this in concert almost every time i see them.

 
         
 
Tracers:
  Im not a huge fan of Driveway to Driveway. I think it's because it's the most traditional "ballad" on the record and its relative lack of bitterness makes this tune the most accessible one on the album. Then again, that's probably why the band still plays this one in concert.  
         
 
Malimus:
 

Driveway to Driveway has the Mid-tempo "ballad" pace. Sweetest little riff to pen. The hook of those crunched out chords from Jim in the back. Then Mac comes in with:

I still have briars in my clothes.
Did I lay you down in those?
The names on the stones were all erased.
I thought it was you that I had chased.
Driveway to driveway, drunk.
I don't remember this too well.
Glad I still have the scrapes to prove.
Prove it was me who fell.

What's going on there? Your guess is as good as mine. All I can tell you for sure is that it hurts.

From stage to stage we flew.
A drink in every hand.
My hand on your heart had been replaced.
I thought it was you that I had chased.

Just fucking brutal.

 
         
 
PostLibyan:
  But let's ignore their performance habits and go over the rest of the songs on this record. Saving my Ticket has clearer vocals than the previous few songs as well as really crunchy guitars, but in general is not that different from the three songs that came before it. Even so, this was my favorite song on this record for many years. I still like it a lot.  
         
 
Malimus:
 

He wipes away a space at the window.
He still can't see too well.
He spits into his hand.
It's not for luck anymore.

This is the happiest song about masturbation in lieu of the woman you love you'll ever hear.

 
 
     
 
Tracers:
  Really, Malimus?  I don't think I'd ever considered this song in that exact way before.  I think I'll retreat to my happy place now.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  The tempo slows back down to a growl for Kicked In, Jon Wurster's drumming a dull but loud thud as McCaughan struggles to sing over the guitar roar. It is a heavy yet good song that builds to a real frenzy.  
         
 
Tracers:
  With the exception of the afore-mentioned Water Wings, the vocals on Foolish just ache. Whereas PostLibyan hears Mac struggling to be heard over the din, I hear a yowl of agony.  
         
 
Malimus:
 

I wish the nights were warm again this month.
We could stay up all night.

This song is not really about winter. It's about sleeping alone.

 
 
     
 
Tracers:
  Well there you go.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  McCaughan's is at his lyrical bitterest on Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything, and i think the title about sums that up. This is a great tune though, starting with a chiming guitar bit before descending into a fast roar. McCaughan may be bitter, but he is still a punk, so he's got to scream about it. This song is cathartic in the way that only a punk tune with loud guitars can be. It ends, much like Like a Fool does, with a long jam, the guitars just going at it, picking at notes and strumming away.  
         
 
Malimus:
 

By Why Do You Have To Put A Date On Everything, remorse and loneliness has turned into full-blown anger.

You got your muscles in one big knot.
But mine are just loosening.
You used to cut me up inside.
I won't let you do it again.

 
         
 
PostLibyan:
  Without Blinking is another bitter, fast song. For the longest time i thought it was called "Without Thinking", but McCaughan does kind of mix up those words in the lyrics. Again, this is not too different, the same dull thudding drums, the same roaring guitars, but the voice is different, a little lower in tone than some of the fully helium-pitched tunes elsewhere on the record. It works with the grinding guitars.  
         
 
Malimus:
 

Without Blinking is by far my favorite song on the album. It is, I believe, the pivot of the whole affair.

Did you really do this without thinking?
Or was there some concentration at work.
Cause when you said 'I'm sorry' you were not blinking.
You can't pretend to not know how that hurt.
You can't pretend to not know now.

Self-referential as all hell. If she didn't know how much it hurt that she wasn't blinking, by god she knows now. Because he wrote a song about it. "You can't pretend to not know now." Good god, this is a near perfect song.

This is me pointing at the moon.

 
         
 
PostLibyan:
  Superchunk slow it down again for Keeping Track, which moves at a pace similar to the album opener. McCaughan sings lightly over guitars that chime instead of growl, while Wurster keeps a metronomic beat.  
         
 
Malimus:
  Keeping Track A song that admits its melancholy in the music, at least. "All of this has been exhausting, and I am ready for it to stop." Are you keeping track?  
         
 
Tracers:
  When I first heard Foolish, the tune that grabbed my attention was Keeping Track. I think this is because the relative subtlety of the instrumentation only serves to emphasize the sheer emotional agony of the vocals. Honestly, to this day, some 16 years or so after I first heard this album, when I hear Keeping Track, I want to just curl up and cry because the pain present is the delivery feels so very real and so very intimate. I never hear this tune without feeling a need to hunt Mac down and give him a hug.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  Revelations starts out like Keeping Track, but picks up a bit, then slows down again, repeating the fast then slow pattern. The chorus is a gloriously thunderous guitar pounding, while McCaughan screams and the rest of the band yell in the background. I don't know what the revelation was, but it doesn't sound like a good thing.  
         
 
Malimus:
  I'd forgotten how depressing the end of this album was. Revelations, like Keeping track maintains the dour, resigned loss, at least in the intro. "So you left me in this disarray. What am I supposed to say? 'I'm fine.'" I need a second alone. You stole my calm.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  Stretched Out is another slower tune, the band sort of meandering along as McCaughan wails away. Probably my least favorite song on this record, but not a bad tune by any means.  
         
 
Malimus:
  Stretched Out - "Let's not count the last, column of needs. You promised me I'd pass. Then you present me with these. Letters all in code. Letters all in code. You never taught me how to read." God. Just brutal.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  And finally the record wraps up with In a Stage Whisper, where the band slow it down even further. This is a slow, very sad, quiet song. There is a mournful guitar solo, but otherwise it is subdued. It ends the album on a note even slower than the one that started it.  
         
 
Malimus:
  In A Stage Whisper is the sound of a man's heart just giving the fuck up. It will take another year of constant therapy (through songwriting) to work this out. It's still present on Strings, but it's not this present. He's at least making progress on the next album. Foolish? Not so much. Foolish is the recorded sound of a human heart breaking into a thousand pieces, over a single fucking girl. And it's damned near perfect. "Did you notice the face, she was wearing, when she stepped into the light?"  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

The first time i listened to this record i went along with Superchunk on their dark journey, through slow songs that spoke of quiet pain, and fast ones that screamed anger, and i enjoyed every minute of it.   I played this record for everyone i could, introducing Malimus and Tracers (and many others) to the wonders of this record. 

 
         
 
Tracers:
  Foolish is one of three CDs I've had to re-purchase because I've worn out my original copy. So when PostLibyan speaks to the wonders of this record, he tells the truth. And what he doesn't point out is that, even after countless listens, you still will hear different things each time you play it.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

I have listened to this record hundreds of times, if not more. I know all the words, well, as much as anyone can know them. I mean, what the heck is McCaughan yelling on The First Part? Who knows, and for the record i don't fully agree with Malimus's reading, up above. But i don't care. At times the lyrics are understandable, and at times they are lost in the guitars. I even once bought a $5 CD from a used CD store because the name of the band was Rocket Fuel Is the Key, and that is a line from Kicked In. (That CD failed to impress, but whatever.)

To me, Superchunk begins here. The previous three records and one compilation are all pre-cursors, the things they did to get here. When i listen to records released later, this is what i instinctively compare them to. Foolish is the lens through which my understanding and enjoyment of Superchunk is filtered.

 
         
 
Tracers:
  Agreed. When you say "Superchunk" to me, this (along with Here's Where the Strings Come In) is what comes immediately to mind. Lyrically and musically, it just feels so far removed from On the Mouth.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
 

However, let me take a step back and look at Foolish with the fresh eye of objectivity. The first thing i note listening to the record today is that the production can be described as "a little murky". All of the guitars tend to blur together into a kind of roar, the drumming is flat and distant, and the voice is sometimes almost lost in the mix, while very out front at other times. This is not typical for Superchunk, either before or after. McCaughan's voice is usually much more clearly recorded, and the guitars are usually more distinguishable.

However, the murky recording really fits the melancholy mood of the lyrics and helps make the whole thing into a kind of dark record. Even the fast-paced songs tend to have less than happy lyrics, as i mentioned above in talking about Water Wings. Still, i love this record. I love the murkiness, the lyrical bitterness, the furious pace of some songs, and the slow meandering of the others.

Looking at the arc of their career, this might not be Superchunk's best record (we'll get to that in time), but it is my favorite. Here on Foolish Superchunk had ceased to be some scrappy little punk band from Chapel Hill, and had become something more. Fast, energetic punk is the template for much of what goes on here, but they add so much to it. In a Stage Whisper is, i believe, the slowest song they had done to date -- not very punk rock at all.

The thing is, i have listened to Foolish every day for a week or so, and i cannot, for the life of me, draw any direct comparisons to what had come before. No song on here sounds exactly like a previous tune, while i thought that there were real similarities between the songs on their first three records. On Foolish McCaughan pushed himself as a lyricist, and i am sorry that it took whatever tragedy he endured to make him push himself so, but i really enjoy the output. I think the rest of the band struggled to do something new and different to coincide with this new lyrical direction, and i think they succeeded. Foolish is new and different, and Superchunk were not the same band after this. I think that the change was an improvement.

 
         
 
Tracers:
  I agree with that. Despite it being a cornerstone to my perception of Superchunk, Foolish isn't Superchunk's best record. I can't even say it's my personal favorite -- that honor belongs to Here's Where the Strings Come In. But, it does mark such a change for the band that it is the essential Superchunk record, even if you have to be in a certain mood to appreciate its almost claustrophobic darkness. Additionally, this record captures a certain zeitgeist for all three of us and as such is pretty much wrapped up in our adult identities.  
         
 
Malimus:
  It probably bears mentioning that this disc is more or less the soundtrack to Evilsponge's birth. There is no album more completely enmeshed with three primary original "minions" than Foolish. Foolish is the ground in which the friendships that ended up making EvilSponge sprang. We all have other bands that we love. I'm an Archers fool. Tracers and I are Rock*a*Teens fanatics. PostLibyan loves his Cocteau Twins like nobody's business. But the pin that holds us all together is Superchunk. And for all three of us, Superchunk is Foolish. Period. End of story.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  But can you imagine what people who had been following them for three albums thought when they put the new record on and it started with Like a Fool? That song might be my real beginning with the band, but for people who had enjoyed No Pocky For Kitty and On the Mouth, i bet this was a real shocker. I am curious: did this record lose them fans? Superchunk became even more popular, but i still wonder if somewhere in North Carolina there are bitter old punks who talk about how great they were "until Foolish".  
         
 
Tracers:
  I've actually heard this opinion expressed by several folks I know in real life. They think that Superchunk's been all downhill since No Pocky for Kitty.  
         
 
PostLibyan:
  Well, no matter.  I, personally, recommend that everyone listen to this.  Go and get a copy, you can thank me later.  
         
 
Related Links:
 

Label: http://www.mergerecords.com/
Artist:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superchunk
  http://superchunk.com/
  http://www.twitter.com/superchunk
  http://www.last.fm/music/Superchunk
  http://www.myspace.com/superchunkmusic
  http://www.mergerecords.com/
  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Merge-Records/88476979019
Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foolish_(album)
Also on EvilSponge:
   Introduction to Superchunk
   Album: Superchunk
   Album: No Pocky For Kitty
   Compilation: Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91)
   Album: On the Mouth
   Compilation: Incidental Music 1991-95
   Album: Here's Where the Strings Come In
   EP: Laughter Guns
   Album: Indoor Living
   Album: Come Pick Me Up
   Album: Here's To Shutting Up
   Concert: Thu.8.Sep.11

 
         

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