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A Kinder, Gentler Superchunk

Aereogramme, and Rilo Kiley Open at the Somerville Theatre

By Naveen Sunkavally and Devdoot Majumdar

staff Writers

Superchunk, Aereogramme, Rilo Kiley

Somerville Theatre

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

More than a decade in the business, Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Superchunk has progressed quite a bit since their early glory days of lo-fi indie punk-rock. Their eighth and latest CD, Here’s to Shutting Up, is a collection of pop songs -- a fact that may come as a disappointment to veteran hardcore fans of the group. But if last Wednesday’s concert is any indication, Superchunk can still deliver a powerful set of songs and engage an audience just as well as they could a decade ago.

Last Wednesday at the Somerville Theatre, Superchunk played the songs off their latest CD with the passion that has come to characterize their live performances. What the concert lacked in the visceral punk-rock energy of their younger days, the band made up for with their depth of emotion and subtlety of expression. Although most in the theater stood throughout the entire set, this could very well have been a concert at which everyone sat down and just absorbed the music.

At their best, Superchunk played perfectly constructed pure pop songs. “Late Century Dream,” the opening song and single off Here’s to Shutting Up, set the tone. The mellow and lush song with the throbbing bass line and understated vocals recalled the splendor of New Order at their best. “What Do You Look Forward To?” is a sprawling eight minute piece that draws the audience in with a hypnotic synthesizer line and climaxes to a lifting harmony. The folksy “Florida’s on Fire” and an acoustic version of “Low Branches” (off their Come Pick Me Up album) were also highlights.

The best moment of the evening belonged to the mellow country song “Phone Sex,” with its eerie harmony, “Plane crash footage on TV, I know that could be me ....” Despite being written well before September 11, the song, which is about maintaining a long-distance relationship, was still all the more poignant and resonated with the audience.

The few songs on Here’s to Shutting Up that don’t hold their own with the rest of the album were ruefully apparent in concert. Coincidentally, these songs happened to be the ones that sounded most like the Superchunk of old, such as “Out on the Wing” and “Rainy Streets.” The band played the songs with conviction, but they just weren’t interesting musically.

Another drawback was the lead vocals of Mac McCaughan, who sounds better on recordings than live. McCaughan, who sings in a high distinctive voice, found himself stretching for the high notes throughout the evening, and at times he was simply overwhelmed by the three-guitar attack of the band.

For those fans with a yearning for instant gratification, Superchunk did offer a few bones from their early punk rock days. “Slack Motherfucker,” their first big hit, made an appearance in the encore, and the song “Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus” was positively menacing in delivery.

Southern California’s Rilo Kiley opened the evening with a set of songs from their latest album, Take Offs and Landings. Fresh off from a tour with the Breeders, lead singer Jenny Lewis’s performance was understandably less than diva but nevertheless entertaining. The band’s melody-rich, slow-rock repertoire silenced the movie theater-turned-club as they sailed through their mellow overtones.

A less than enthusiastic crowd and a less than enthusiastic performance set Rilo Kiley into the category of adequate opening band. Despite their beckoningly sweet singing and memorable melodies, their performance fell short of their last in the Boston area.

The second opening act, Aereogramme, are three angry bearded Scotsmen who play art-rock in the vein of Sonic Youth and Mogwai. Aereogramme bassist Campbell McNeil trudged in downing a beer and looked like he was about to keel over at any moment during the set. But somehow he managed to keep a steady groove for guitarist and lead singer Craig B., who spent most of the time singing in a high frail tenor over noise-like textures. Every now and then, however, Craig B. would unexpectedly explode into horrifying gut-wrenching screams over heavy metal riffs accompanied by blinding and flashing flood lights.

The band seemed to know their music is an acquired taste, as Craig B. urged members of the audience to at least “buy some popcorn” if they didn’t want to purchase their merchandise. Aereogramme’s debut CD Story in White and the lead accompanying single “Zionist Timing” hit U.S. stores on Oct. 9.