Of all the common terms in the music critic's lexicon, supergroup is the most dubious. Though its ostensible etymology suggests only certain bands can be super, its common usage is for acts composed of musicians made famous through previous bands, no matter how good the band in question is. But who's to define when an act's members are good enough to merit the super prefix? Can a group of plain old dudes not start a group that is, soon enough, subjectively super? After all, most supergroups are really awfulgroups only composed of supermusicians, likely because a band knowing it's destined for the "supergroup" tag sports a Red Sox-sized monkey rarely conquered.
Fortunately, California-by-way-of-Kansas songwriter Matt Suggs giggles when the epithet is applied to his newest, and best, project, the Lawrence-based quintet White Whale. The group's charged debut, WWI, finds Suggs writing for the first time in the context of a truly collaborative band, bouncing ideas off of the trio, Thee Higher Burning Fire, which served as the backing band for his eponymous material, and Rob Pope, the bassist of the hugely successful Get-Up Kids.
"It pretty much just kind of happened," says Suggs, who has been releasing albums on Merge Records since 1992 with his first band, Butterglory, and later under his own name. "There wasn't a concept at all from the beginning when we practiced. The idea was just to get us all in a room and see what happened."
"What happened" stands as one of the most captivating indie rock albums this year, an eclectic mix of several distinct talents funneling into cathartic swells not far removed from another Merge favorite, The Arcade Fire. The eight-minute "O' William, O' Sarah" takes Suggs' traditionally strong songcraft and makes it, for the first time, dynamic, expertly distending the shift from a twangy gallop to a noisy coda. Suggs, who was doing little musically back in California before he decided to move back to Kansas to start rehearsing, is perfect for the task. His voice has always sounded a bit like a lazy eye looks, but, here, it retains that endearing imperfection while actually moving, riding the crests of keyboards, omnipresent guitars and a brilliant rhythm section.
At long last, he sounds, well, super.
White Whale plays Local 506 on Thursday, Aug. 3 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $7. Audubon Park and Second Story Man open.