Labeling Superchunk a workhorse seems wrong at this point: Together for two decades, the quartet hadn't released a batch of new songs since 2001's overlooked LP Here's to Shutting Up until offering this five-track EP, Leaves in the Gutter, in advance of its 20th anniversary. And the band, which has played between one and five times a year since touring behind Shutting Up, doesn't even give us all new material now: Three tracks are premieres, but another is an acoustic demo of the contagious lead tune, "Learned to Surf," while the other is the first widespread release of "Misfits and Mistakes," a punchy little classic cut in 2007 as a limited-edition seven-inch for a cartoon soundtrack.
But there is something impressively utilitarian about Superchunk, who—despite its period of dormancy—has released four live albums, a cover of a Destiny's Child tune and a double-disc compilation since 2001. Meanwhile, members got married, raised kids, ran a record label, concentrated on other bands, vouched for Obama and toured as sidemen in other acts. These new tunes are tight and explosive, then, the work of a band that hasn't spent the last eight years dawdling through songs they didn't mean but that still loves to play together: Opener "Learned to Surf" offers frontman Mac McCaughan at his self-reliant, socially defiant best, howling "I can't hold my breath anymore/ I stopped swimming and learned to surf" in the chorus, as Laura Ballance's cavernous bass tone offers ballast during another signature Chunk breakdown. In the verses, Jon Wurster charges through with energy and aplomb, subdividing time with flickering hi-hat movements. To their credit and dismissal, Superchunk's always stuck to a relatively consistent formula. On Leaves in the Gutter, you'll mostly hear the band do what it's long done best.
Fittingly, the first three minutes of "Knock Knock Knock" follow the familiar form, but the last minute might be the most suggestive of growth: After chorus two, McCaughan just plays the song's chords, while guitarist Jim Wilbur carves out a gnarled riff in another channel. Wilbur's line slowly comes around to the tune, just as McCaughan steps into a counter riff that's a bit higher and a bit thinner. They swivel around, old dance partners suddenly trying a new move. Wurster smashes his cymbals, and the song burns out and into McCaughan's solo demo for "Learned to Surf." It reveals just how high the quartet can send its frontman's ideas, a realization that makes you hope more is on the way.
Superchunk plays a warm-up gig for the Coachella Music Festival at Cat's Cradle Wednesday, April 15, with Hammer No More the Fingers. The 9:30 p.m. show costs $12.