15 Apr, 2013

Dump – “Superpowerless”

Dump - SuperpowerlessBeing raised as a millennial, for whatever reason, has acutely (and perhaps completely inaccurately) defined my understanding of nostalgia. Growing up immersed in and surrounded by friends, schoolmates, colleagues–imagine a serious-looking kindergartner with a crisp tie and a briefcase–who were born in the early to mid 90s spawned some sort of warped cultural understanding of our collective childhood. Of course it depends on the person, but often when a conversation is sparked with a fellow millennial about our upbringing, it inevitably leads to a discussion of the pop culture artifacts representative of our youth. This of course could be said about any demographic, so what makes these conversations as a member of the Y-generation surprising? It’s interesting simply because when we talk about the 90s, there is an unspoken sense of conviction in our choices to partake in said culture. We are humoring ourselves in an outlandish fashion that we were conscious, self-aware consumers in this time period, a time when our ages weren’t even in the double digits, a time when we wouldn’t dare question the merit of combat-proficient mutant turtles living underground with a profound affection for pizza, a time when we wouldn’t stop to comprehend the significance of our ritualistic bond with Saturday morning cartoons.

For someone who just entered his second decade of existence, it is important to consider how the selective recollection of my childhood undoubtedly affects what I perceive to be nostalgic: in the period of my life when I couldn’t even dress myself, how am I suspected to have (or remember) a constructed, let alone developed, sense of personal identity? I just thought some things were awesome (ex. Buzz Lightyear) and others were totally lame (read: any vegetable). I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said having any expectation past this is inherently ridiculous; yet, this seems to be the general consensus. Sure we were “90s kids”–but we should not forget that this solely entails us being toddlers in the 90s.

With that off my chest, I will openly confess that my personal experience of the 90s was one of supreme bliss–but that was attributed to having no responsibilities and getting the most basic but comprehensive satisfaction out of a juice box and a new episode of Pokémon. It had nothing to do with being cognizant of what the 90s were; only now do I have reason to attribute it as one of the greatest musical decades in recent memory: one saturated with a subculture now being called “slacker indie rock.” Yes, when these bands were “relevant,” I was entirely unaware they existed. But now, 20 years later, I align these sounds with the cornerstones of my personal taste.

James McNew is probably most well known for being the third member of hugely influential band Yo La Tengo (joining the forces of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley for 1992’s May I Sing With Me). With Yo La Tengo having undeniable clout in the indie rock community–they began in 1984 and are still active today–McNew’s contributions as bass player somewhat immediately propelled him to be deemed as a pertinent voice; this was cemented with his solo side project Dump, mainly comprised of four-track home recordings. Superpowerless, McNew’s first LP as Dump, was initially released in 1993, coincidentally, the year I was born. With this reissue, a D-side of 8 additional tracks accompanies the original 19 cuts.

Thematically, Superpowerless is an album that directly references its title. McNew’s lyrics mainly focus on the insecurities that are inevitable and omnipresent when living an existence rooted in introversion. While the record maintains a semi-consistent aesthetic, the songs are arranged in a manner that makes it sound like a mixtape generated from McNew’s personal influences as a musician. Yes, most every track features tape hiss, lo-fi fuzzy guitar tones, simple percussion accompaniments (sometimes loose and ambling, sometimes tight and unadorned), and his thin, high-pitched voice that wouldn’t be a stretch to compare to the stylings of Neil Young. However, the most noticeable uniformity is the basic lack of uniformity. Some tracks possess a sonic atmosphere built on linear guitar patterns and a structure that is best described as textbook indie rock (“Secret Blood”) while others feature reverb-heavy–at times even directionless–guitar and bass outlines adorned with droopy drums and disjointed, glitchy embellishments that infuse jazz sensibilities with Dump’s recognizable calling cards (“Outer Spaceways, Inc.”). At its core, Superpowerless is less like a portfolio and more like a sketchbook: tentative, densely varied, and overtly informal. McNew is clearly unconcerned with developing an idiosyncratic sound with Dump and rather tries to produce something honest and homemade. In fact, Superpowerless seems very much like an unsung hero, an originator of sorts that could be traced back as an early influence for the crucial foundation of the DIY scene.

The most representative span of the album as a whole is found in the 14 minute stretch of tracks 13-16. The cacophony and distorted heaviness of instrumental “19 ½” gives way to an unexpectedly tender cover of “Moon River,” glossy guitar tones and McNew’s pleasant vocal timbre providing a jarring yet welcome contrast. After this comes the title track, which most directly identifies Superpowerless as an album and Dump as a project, emphasizing the sentiment of feeling small, stifled and trapped in isolation; sample lyric: “When the walls close in tight/There’s no way to fly/It happens all the time.” Then comes “Ode to Shaggs Own Thing,” another instrumental that is, obviously enough, an indirect homage to bizarre female outsider act the Shaggs. It is a sprawling, echoing guitar-based trip that takes the model indecision of Dot Wiggin’s tone and develops it into something prettier and more melodic. Within 4 songs, McNew manages to radiate 4 completely different musical atmospheres: some a product of originality and others solely created for tribute. This multiplicity, at its most basic, is what Superpowerless is really about.

Superpowerless may not be an album that can be called cohesive or even a particularly momentous release of 1993 (let alone its reissue in 2013). This is mainly because that’s not what it was trying to be: James McNew did not release it to be important. These home-recorded sketches exist principally to express something genuine, its form is molded only by the artist’s inspirations and internal dialogue. There is no ulterior motive, there is no grand overarching theme hidden within the lyrics. It is simply music about feeling alone, music that timidly approaches the fact that as humans sometimes we all feel completely superpowerless. And although I don’t have the right to say so because I was an infant when it was released, to me, it sounds nostalgic.

Review by Sigmund Steiger.

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