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  Here's Where the Strings Come In  




Release Date:


Reviewed by:
  PostLibyan and Tracers  

Let me state this upfront: in my opinion Here's Where the Strings Come In is Superchunk's masterpiece. This may be a very controversial statement. I know that a large part of the fanbase would disagree; many love No Pocky for Kitty. Even amongst us at Evil Sponge, there is a strong preference for Foolish. And I get that. However, while No Pocky for Kitty is the definite highlight of the early, punkier Superchunk and the pain of Foolish pushed the band into a new realm and skill of songwriting, Here's Where the Strings Come In combines both of these previous elements and adds an heaping tablespoon of sheer catchiness, which makes it the culmination of the best of what Superchunk had to offer.


I have to agree with you on this one. Here's Where the Strings Come In is their masterpiece.


In a holistic sense, I suspect that what makes this album so compelling is the fact that the band manages to harness the directed, pointed pain of Foolish and channel into a somewhat more oblique anger (at least lyrically). As a whole, this record's energy always feels more outwardly focused and driven than its predecessor, which certainly makes it an easier listen. Likewise, the afore-mentioned focus gives an extra weight to the lyrics and music, which distinguishes it from Superchunk's pre-Foolish material. Finally, if only because at this point the band members had been playing together for years, the music and melodies have an extra complexity, and that allows the sonic space to fill without becoming overly distorted or unbalanced.

So, yes, Here's Where the Strings Come In is my favorite Superchunk record. Sue me.

This record begins (as Superchunk's albums are wont to) with an anthem. In this case, it's Hyper Enough. Beginning with a drum crash and some briskly strummed chords, it quickly moves into the bouncy little melody, complete with a positively jaunty bassline. Then Mac McCaughan begins singing. This first line led directly to the title of the band's next EP Laughter Guns, which came about when a group of radio DJs attempted to analyze this album and never made off of a rather humorous take on this tune. Essentially, part of the humor of this DJ show is that they misheard the opening line and thought Mac was singing about "Laughter Guns"; ironically, I can never listen to Hyper Enough without hearing the same phrase (in fact, these days, I'm not even sure what Mac is actually singing). Anyway, after the verse, the band begins a bouncy chorus of "I think I'm hyper enough as it is". This leads to the opening of the second verse, which asks, "When all our bones and muscles hurt, what's so funny about that?" As catchy and memorable as that was back in the day, now some 15 plus years later, that one line has a lot more resonance for me personally than it once did. Likewise, the bridge, which features an odd rhythm that cause the afore-mentioned DJs to confuse themselves whilst trying to count the beat, acts a nice breaks before the song progresses along to its end.


Superchunk created one of the greatest pieces of merch to go with this song: coffee mugs with the bands logo and the words "Hyper Enough" printed on them. We still use these mugs, to this day.


From there, the music slows down just a wee bit for Silverleaf and Snowy Tears, which features a low, almost languid guitar melody over a slightly quicker beat. This is the first of the songs on the album which reflects the change of tone from Foolish. By this, I mean that it's clear that Mac is singing about a relationship that has ended poorly, but the effect is more one of regret and not of outright hostility. In fact, this is almost a pretty ballad-esque tune, which sets in sharp contrast to next one, It's Beautiful Here, Too, which is the most outright bitter song present. Yet, this bitterness doesn't keep it from being a whole lot of fun. This one begins with some fairly perfunctory drumming, over which the guitars play a riff before the bass eventually comes in its own distinctive melody. The lyrics tell ostensibly of a trip to nature before Mac adds repeatedly in a somewhat snotty voice, "It's beautiful here too; why I am telling you?" before the chorus makes the narrative clear by shouting out, "Last year. Last night. I'm tired. Let's fight". At less than 3 minutes, I think that this could have been the "anthem" on the album, except that Hyper Enough pretty much nails that spot down.

The fourth song, Iron on, is one that I always overlook on first listen. But whenever I return this record, it's one of the songs I deliberately listen to. I think that's because this is a jangly pop tune with a very hummable melody that's well punctuated by the rhythm section. On the surface, this is another song about remembering both better and worse times in a relationship. This seems borne out by the line in the bridge which asks, "Will you send me a picture so I can remember?" Similarly, the second verse narrative recalls another episode in the past. As nice as this song is, it really comes together around the 2:30 minute mark, when the bass becomes more prominent, the drums more insistent and the guitar riff changes the melody entirely to match Mac's chorus of "Iron this on when you get home." The silence which follows in broken by a punctuated thud of rhythm and guitars as Sunshine State begins. This is another song that tends to get lost in the crowd of good songs on this record. This one is very slow and deliberate, both musically and lyrically. In many ways, this one feels like a tune that opens the path to the slower tunes which dominated Superchunk's latter catalogue, especially on Indoor Living. Still, I do like it, especially because it's one of the first place on the album where the bands plays with silence and quiet in the context of letting slow, deliberate instrumentation speak for itself

But ultimately, Sunshine State is forgotten at the first drum thump and guitar squeal of the next song, which is truly my favorite Superchunk song. This is Detroit I Has a Skyline and it is without a doubt the apotheosis of "Indie Rock" in my opinion. Coming in at a mere 2:30 minutes, it has rather fast beat over which Mac sings another tune of regret and lost chances. But the repeated lines of "I had a crush, nothing worked out…but I have faith" make the tale uplifting and, in some senses, reaffirming. Combined with a memorable melody and some particular nice guitarwork, courtesy of Jim Wilbur, when this song crashes to its too quick close, I’m always tempted to enact a line from its first: "Played track six and track seven again and again". O.K. so this is in fact track six, and I do want to play it over and over and over. Truly Detroit Has a Skyline is pretty much a perfect song.


However, i feel that we must point out that, really, Detroit does not have much of a skyline at all.


Next up is Eastern Terminal, which has a rumbly bassline and more low-pitched guitars that are propelled by the steady drums. On this, the call and response vocals of Mac singing lines like, "Do you think your friends will show?" and Jim Wilbur responding quietly, "I don't, I don't know" works as a nice contrast to the fullness of the instrumentation. Still, on the Mrg 100 release (an album released back in 1999 to celebrate Merge Record's first 10 years), this tune was remixed by Mark Robinson, who added extra instruments and replaced Wilbur's vocal line with his own, much lower voice. And honestly, that remix is better than this original recorded version, mainly because the extra disparity between the voices helps brings Mac's reedy voice to the forefront. Still, this version pretty much rocks as well.

Song eight, Animated Airplanes Over Germany is another "Indie Rock" tune in the same vein as Detroit Has a Skyline. Although it's not as fast-paced as Detroit Has a Skyline, it moves along more quickly than Eastern Terminal. This one also has a nice melody, in which one of the guitar riffs echoes the vocal line, while the other rattles along, lower in the mix, in a complimentary fashion. Actually, these dueling, but complementary, guitar riffs is a feature throughout Here's Where the Strings Come In and is one of the reasons that I think this album as whole is such an advance musically over Superchunk's previous output. Aside from that, the best part of this song occurs at the end, when the instrumentation becomes quiet and moody while Mac sings out in his most helium-voiced manner, "He thought he saw life flash between his knees on an animated airplane over Germany…" Ah, singing about severe airplane turbulence has never seems quite so…joyful.

For me, the only track which I'd have been tempted to leave off the album come next. I’m sure there are people who like the relative sedateness and muted bitterness of Green Flowers, Blue Fish, but I tend to think that this territory was covered better throughout Foolish and the rhythm was handled better on Sunshine State. Ultimately, this is the song on the record where I think about going to grab a glass of water or check my email. In essence, it acts as a pause. In concert, this is where I'd head to the restroom and/or to grab a beer.

But then it's time for the title track, which feels to me like a statement of where Mac was mentally at during the writing of this song and album. From the first lines of "I have a fading impression of the last hurtful expression on your face. I don't remember the time, but I remember the scene. Everything got ugly. How did we get so mean?" to the very end of "Here's where everything comes together. Either that, or it all falls apart. Yeah, here's where the strings come in" essentially acts as a revue of the circumstances which originally led to Foolish and how much Mac has changed since that time. And like so many other tunes on this record, it speaks of memories and bad things, but suggests that there is way forward in the future. On top of this narrative, the song itself is nice mid-tempo tune, of the likes which Superchunk perform so very well. In fact, this one song is so definitive and so Superchunk-y that I wish it actually came after the next song and ended the record. Certainly, that statement of "Yeah, here's Where the Strings Come In" followed by absolute silence would have been quite effective.

But the title track is not the last song on the record. Rather, that place is held by Certain Stars, which is a nice, but odd, track. At the beginning, it almost sounds like a throwback to the No Pocky for Kitty days, with a hard punk beat and some quick, crunchy guitar and doubled vocal work, courtesy of McCaughan and Wilbur. But after it goes on for a while, there is a sudden guitar echo before the band comes back in with a totally different and much slower rhythm that adds keyboards while the voices plaintatively sing, "Certain Stars…" It's a nice touch and is actually a nice ending to the album, despite my own preference for ending with the title track.


I really like Certain Stars. I think it the bridge between the punk of Precision Auto and the keyboard work on their next few records. Plus it's got a great beat.


And so Here's Where the Strings Come In ends. Of the 11 songs on the record, I think only one is truly forgettable (Green Flowers, Blue Fish) while everything else ranges from good to great to absolutely transcendent (listen to Detroit Has a Skyline and get back to me). As a whole, this and Foolish are the most accomplished and unified record Superchunk have ever released. But the recording on Here's Where the Strings Come In is more expansive and spacious than that heard on Foolish, which only serves to emphasize both the musical and lyrical growth demonstrated on the earlier record. Combining these factors with the simple fact that this album isn't as sheerly heart-wrenching as Foolish perhaps explains that, while I love both albums, I actually love this one just a wee bit more.


Let me relate a story that illustrates this point. Back in the late 1990s, say 1999 or so, i was working at IBM. This was in the era before MP3 players, so us worker bees carries CDs with us to listen to at the office. One day i was working closely with a writer from Chicago. He had a stack of CDs, and i had mine. He had a few Guided By Voices records, and i had never really gotten into them. I had Strings with me, and so we traded. I listened to some schlock by GBV (who i still just don't care for), and he listened to this. About thirty minutes in he took off his headphones and said to me, "This album is amazing! Every song is better than the one before it, and that first song is one of the best tunes i have ever heard." So, yes. Here's Where the Strings Come In sums up Superchunk in one convenient package.

So, gentle reader, if you get one thing out of our somewhat self-indulgent exercise of reviewing this band's output, is this: go and get a copy of Here's Where the Strings Come In, and play it loud. This is 1990s American Indie Rock at its highest point.

Related Links:

Also on EvilSponge:
   Introduction to Superchunk
   Album: Superchunk
   Album: No Pocky For Kitty
   Compilation: Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91)
   Album: On the Mouth
   Album: Foolish
   Compilation: Incidental Music 1991-95
   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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