The indie-rock scene that spawned Superchunk has been ailing recently, but the North Carolina quartet has never sounded healthier. The lively and consistently tuneful "Come Pick Me Up" is the most engaging album of the band's decade-long career, yet grunge hard-liners needn't be alarmed: These 13 songs are reassuringly noisy, at least in places.
Although Superchunk and producer Jim O'Rourke have expanded the available timbres by enlisting strings and horns, the sound is still dominated by Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur's guitars. In fact, the most striking addition to the band's sound is the newly expressive vocals, which feature multiple harmonies and McCaughan's surprising frequent use of his falsetto. Those high registers suit such sweetly melodic -- and unabashedly amorous -- songs as "Honey Bee" and "Pulled Muscle," but they don't clash with the raucous outbursts of tunes like "Tiny Bombs" and the slightly funky "So Convinced." While "Come Pick Me Up" usefully refurbishes Superchunk's sound, the band hasn't lost its core values.
Melody and din also coincide on the Hurricane Lamps' "Tales From the Sink," but less artfully. This Northern Virginia trio plays loungey folk-rock in the manner of such '80s British bands as the Smiths and Aztec Camera, but the muffled recording -- done "in the basement on our eight-track" -- deprives the band's songs of the necessary sparkle. As revealed by titles like "My Girlfriend, the Cloud" and "I'm in Love With a Burnt-Out Star," singer-guitarist Eric Tischler conducts arch and somewhat malicious dissections of women who used to be in his life. These songs are reasonably clever, but they'd probably sound more sophisticated if the album's audio quality evoked the penthouse rather than the cellar.
Both appearing Friday at the Black Cat with Rock-a-Teens. To hear a free Sound Bite from Superchunk, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8110. For a Sound Bite from the Hurricane Lamps, press 8111. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)