You didn’t like the last Portastatic album? Sit tight: There’ll be another soon. Of late, there almost always is. That singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan can find time between his duties running Merge Records and being a father to put out and tour behind three Portastatic albums in just over a year’s time bears witness to his prolific tendencies.
“I like being productive,” McCaughan says. “I like the idea of getting these records out there and not taking two or three years between records, which Superchunk ended up doing because we toured so much.”
Originally a side project to Superchunk, Portastatic has moved to the forefront with that band’s dormancy. Since 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, the last (and appropriately titled) Superchunk album, McCaughan has recorded an EP with jazz musician Ken Vandermark, a film score, and five full-length albums (counting his collaboration with Robert Pollard, Go Back Snowball).
His latest, Be Still Please, rises to the high bar set by last August’s Bright Ideas, though its understated and mid-tempo but lush numbers are in stark contrast with Ideas‘ more rock-oriented approach. Whereas Ideas boasted chunky tracks such as “Through with People” and “The Soft Rewind,” Be Still feels more measured and ruminative from the bubbly, bossa nova of “Sweetness and Light” to the swelling beauty of the acoustically driven “Like a Pearl.”
That contrast is almost accidental. McCaughan originally planned to record Be Still Please immediately after returning from Portastatic’s tour last fall. Several songs were already written and had even found their way into the sets. But director Matthew Bissonnette asked McCaughan to score his movie, Who Loves the Sun, about a love triangle involving childhood friends and starring Luke Haas and Canadian actress Molly Parker. They’d worked together before on Bissonnette’s 2001 film, Looking for Leonard.
“That soundtrack was something that needed to be done within a month–written and recorded,” says McCaughan. He worked on the score at Zeno Gill’s Pox World Empire Studios in Durham. When he finished in December, he just kept going. “I just moved into the mode of doing Be Still Please and used a lot of the people who worked on the film score. It’s a much different sounding record … but I think working on the film score gave me some clues of what directions to go.”
Violinists Laura Thomas and the redoubtable Margaret White provided sonic color, and Carrie Shull’s oboe graced the low-end on several songs. There’s a tenderness and quietude that contributes to the record’s cinematic feel. On one of the best tracks, “Black Buttons,” McCaughan recounts a friend’s wild days (“You rode ’round sofas stuffed with straw”) and eventual disaffection (“You sang into the answering machines of all your friends/but they never got the message”), concluding with the hope that “the sunlight clears the branches to your face.”
Though the ballad tempos and string arrangements clearly suggest a well-wrought album, McCaughan chafes at the rock critic shorthand “chamber pop.”
“For me, I never want the arrangements or the fact that there are strings on a record to be the thing that you talk about,” McCaughan says. “But to me someone that describes they’re music as chamber pop, it’s like they’re more interested in the chamber part of it. A Fairport Convention or Nick Drake record or Belle & Sebastian–they’re good because of the songs and the emotions they create.”
Anyway, for McCaughan, this is “a folk record, in a way.” The idea was for the acoustic guitar to be the focus. While each of the band’s last three albums–Summer of the Shark, Bright Ideas and Be Still Please–are somewhat different in tone and approach, he suggests they are part of a whole, an expression of Portastatic finding its identity after transitioning from a studio project to a touring act.
“I feel these three records are a focusing of the Portastatic thing,” he says. “The earlier records, there was a lot more in-between stuff going on. Instrumentals and really short songs. Just kind of weird stuff. I think I focused on making the songs more complete the last couple records.”
The middle of Be Still Please, especially, distinguishes a divergent Portastatic approach. “Getting Saved” bites on Dylan with a jaded romanticism cadged from “Shelter from the Storm.” “I’m not looking for peace/ No, that’s so unnatural/ Maybe just some middle space and borrowed time,” McCaughan sings. “I don’t need your sincere proclamations, just some refuge.” And–in another Dylan-attributable move–“You Blanks” finds McCaughan rattling off a poignant political tune. While politics have hovered at the edge of a number of his songs (such as “Late Century Dream”), he’s never been as forthright as on “You Blanks,” a euphemism for the “fuckers” that punctuate the chorus. In an accurate admission, McCaughan sings, “All my songs used to end the same way/ Everything’s gonna be OK/ You fuckers make that impossible to say.”
But he’s not about to start a hardcore band: “I felt that way long enough to write the song, but I don’t walk around all day, like, ‘you fuckers.’” Still, the track epitomizes a sense of circumspection that runs through the album. While McCaughan discounts any kind of nostalgia, there is a reflective spirit to much of the album. On “You Blanks,” he mentions a time when “politics was foreign, and sex for when you’re older.” With a 3-year-old daughter named Oona at home, McCaughan admits his perspective has broadened.
“When you have a kid it makes you think about things more from their point of view, and you realize things are really different than you think they are,” he says. “There are certainly lots of things that are deliberately misleading. And you eventually notice, or some people do. Some people don’t, and they’re called Republicans.”
McCaughan’s label, Merge Records–which can be found in downtown Durham just blocks away from Troika–continues to make its own way, serving as a model for independent labels and a bulwark of the rock underground, continuing the DIY legacy they established 17 years ago. Recent months have brought terrific releases from Richard Buckner, Lambchop and Robert Pollard. Good music always finds a home, if not necessarily a huge audience.
“We cater to a fairly specific group of people–people that are fans,” McCaughan says. He could as easily be describing Portastatic’s music. While it might not have Superchunk’s established fandom, Portastatic’s last few albums prove that McCaughan’s still a songwriter to be reckoned with, however loud or fast he plays.
As part of the Troika Music Festival, Portastatic plays Duke Coffeehouse with Jennifer O’Connor, Pleasant and Red Collar on Thursday, Oct. 19. The music starts at 8:30 p.m.