Albums Of The Week

Political and compelling

Superchunk's (from left) Jon Wurster, Mac McCaughan, Jim Wilbur and Laura Ballance.
Superchunk's (from left) Jon Wurster, Mac McCaughan, Jim Wilbur and Laura Ballance.

Superchunk break new ground with their first politically charged album, while Ought temper despair with lush arrangements

It has been a great week for indie American label Merge Records, one of the surviving stalwarts from the alt-rock heyday of the early 1990s.

The North Carolina label put out two significant releases last Friday: What A Time To Be Alive, the 11th album by American alt-rock elders Superchunk, and Room Inside The World by Canadian post-punk upstarts Ought.

Superchunk is Merge's flagship band - bass player Laura Ballance and singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan founded the label in 1989 to release the band's music and eventually ended up signing indie rock luminaries such as Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields and She & Him.

Close to three decades after the quartet formed, What A Time To Be Alive breaks new ground by being the band's first politically charged album.

With songs written quickly after the divisive United States presidential election in late 2016, the outcome is a batch of tunes that channels anxiety and fury through melodic guitar-rock anthems.

Superchunk have always mastered the art of merging punk rock vigour with immediately arresting hooks, but this time, the tunes are honed with razor-sharp missives.

McCaughan's enthusiastic vocals have never sounded more urgent as he rails against what he perceives as political failings.

  • Superchunk's (from left) Jon Wurster, Mac McCaughan, Jim Wilbur and Laura Ballance. ALTERNATIVE ROCK/INDIE ROCK

    WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE

    Superchunk

    Merge Records

    4 stars

  • Superchunk's (from left) Jon Wurster, Mac McCaughan, Jim Wilbur and Laura Ballance. POST-PUNK

    ROOM INSIDE THE WORLD

    Ought

    Merge Records

    4 stars

"To see the rot in no disguise/Oh what a time to be alive," he sings on the title track and album opener, as guitarist Jim Wilbur augments the song with refined solos.

"Break the glass/Don't use the door/This is what/The hammer's for," he exhorts in the call-to-arms energy of Break The Glass.

McCaughan's rage is most prominent in All For You, in which he offers to lay down his non-violent stance in a bid to confront his politically toxic opponents ("I don't like to get hit but fight me").

Less politically charged, but no less compelling, are the new tunes by Ought.

The band remain musically challenging - rhythms morph and take unusual left-turns, while singer-guitarist Tim Darcy's impassioned baritone narrates his concerns about surviving in an uncertain world.

In Disgraced In America, he seemingly takes a stab at wall-building and insular political moves ("Demarcation/See those lines interrupt") as drummer Tim Keen dazzles with deft, wildly shifting beats.

Darcy is at his snarkiest best in the lyrically despondent Disaffectation ("Well here's some liberation, you can order it online"), while the motorik, 4/4 beat in These 3 Things carries a bleak, heartbreak tune ("A precious secret/Like a bird inside a vest/Wings won't mend, so I hold them again/It doesn't speak, it just sings 'til it burns").

Yet, the despair is always tempered by lush arrangements and instrumentation, such as the unexpected appearance of a 70-piece choir in the uplifting Desire.

With Room Inside The World, the quartet expand beyond their post-punk, art-rock roots to deliver an album both wistful and musically gratifying.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Political and compelling'. Print Edition | Subscribe