Superchunk - Acoustic Foolish (Cover Artwork)


Acoustic Foolish (2019)

Merge records

Foolish was a landmark release in the Superchunk canon. It was their first full-length after leaving Matador and returning to their flagship label, Merge Records. It was the first after the romantic breakup between band members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. But perhaps most importantly, it was a musical change of pace, lacking much of the distortion and speed of their early material. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the band decided to re-record the album in an intimate, acoustic setting.

The important thing to know about this release is that it’s not a collection of lazy, glorified demos of 25-year-old songs. The full band is present on here, and flourishes such as strings, piano, bongos and even a saxophone are peppered throughout. It reminds me of Off With Their Heads’ acoustic album for that reason; there's some real effort and creativity in giving these songs a rich new sound from the versions fans already love.

Superchunk have always been about loud distorted riffs, but a lot of these compositions sound great acoustic. The riffage on “The First Part” is pretty indicative of this – it’s stripped down, but still sounds crisp and sweet. Some guest vocals from Alison Crutchfield of Swearin’ really round this track out. “Stretched Out” also stays true to its original form as a catchy piece of fuzzy power pop. The hooks may be more subdued, but they’re still as catchy as ever.

A few tracks, however, have had some really adventurous re-imaginings. “Keeping Track” has a weird, almost gothic country drawl to it. Guest vocals from Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and some liberal usage of a gong add to the strangeness. “Kicked In” is another track with some risks that pay dividends. The acoustic twang, when combined with the muted synth leads on the second half of the song, shine a new perspective on the trademark gloom of the song. I've admittedly never been a huge fan of its slow, plodding nature in the context of the original record, but it's a standout on this version.

The one thing that really detracts from this album for me is Mac's voice. Previous acoustic outings (like the acoustic “Throwing Things” from the Incidental Music comp) still have him belt out in his trademark yelpiness. His voice on here, however, is deliberately toned down. I think this ends up being a pretty major detriment. Mac has never been a great vocalist, but being loud and buried in a cacophony of distortion has worked in just about every electric Superchunk album. But even if his softer voice fits the difference in instrumentation, it's still quite distracting that he can hardly hold a note.

Unfortunately, this becomes an even bigger issue when he does belt it out. The chorus of “Driveway to Driveway,” the most iconic song on Foolish and maybe the entire Chunk discography, is honestly hard to sit through on this version. Mac straining his voice atop some soft piano and acoustic strumming doesn’t do such a powerful song justice.

In the liner notes for the album's Bandcamp release, Mac mentions that the context of the songs has changed pretty drastically in the 25 years since its release. I understand that reasoning for the drastic change in how he sings these songs. However, most of the time, it just doesn't fit everything else I'm hearing on here.

If you love the original as much as me, it's a treat to see how these songs have been rearranged in a milder setting, and I’ll definitely be coming back to the highlights. However, the less interesting moments really suffer from some subpar vocal performances. If you’ve never heard the original before, I recommend steering away from this one until you do.