The last time I checked, Mac McCaughan was the poster child for fiercely independent music. As the front man for Superchunk, and head of Merge Records, McCaughan practically wrote the book on artist-controlled and anti-corporate music. Those familiar with McCaughan’s work over the past half-decade, both with Superchunk and Portastatic, have come to accept and perhaps even appreciate that the once-flaming tongue that spat out “Seed Toss” and “Slack Motherfucker” had developed a more refined taste for songwriting and production, resulting in polished, enjoyable indie-pop records such as 1999’s Come Pick Me Up. It is always rewarding to hear a maverick artist come into his own as a songwriter, and McCaughan managed to do it without any particularly embarrassing moments.
And then came track four on Portastatic’s latest, Bright Ideas. “I Wanna Know Girls,” with its sappy, plaintive lyrics answered by bright, reverb-filled guitar trills, sounds eerily similar to the Counting Crows single “American Girls.” The guitar bridge between the verses sounds so similar, in fact, that I searched the liner notes hoping to find that the entire song was a clever joke. No such luck. Not that sounding like Counting Crows is an inherently bad thing, but it certainly isn’t buying the band cool points, and the quirky nature of Mac’s voice doesn’t lend itself well to bouncy pop numbers. To make matters worse, parts of the vocal recall Streetcore-era Joe Strummer, tragically reminding me of an artist who continued to make good music late in his career. Needless to say, this song shook my belief in Mac to the core.
Thankfully, the rest of the record is pretty damn good. “I Wanna Know Girls” is sandwiched between “White Wave” and “Little Fern,” perhaps the two best songs on the album. “White Wave” begins with a warm clean lead guitar and gradually brings in distortion in a crescendo which continues building through the verse until the first chorus, one of the truly powerful moments on the record. The message and energy of “Wave” favorably recalls “Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello, but where Costello’s song is an active participant in a cultural revolution, McCaughan’s looks from outside and beyond the scene, accepting that the battle has been lost and wondering what could have been done differently.
“Little Fern” uses an alt-country song structure to good effect as it meanders through interestingly poignant and touching lyrics. The simplicity of the song structure gives McCaughan an opportunity to showcase one of his vocal strengths: the ability to change intensity and inflection and convey changing emotion. “Fern” is one of three tracks on the album that might be considered stylistic experimentation, and it is the only one that is wholly successful.
The other two tracks, “Bright Ideas” and “Truckstop Cassettes” are both brooding, thoughtful numbers. They carry a similar message to “White Wave” in that they recall a more innocent time while acknowledging a bleaker future. “Sometimes you wanna put the past in the past/But every generation gets bit in the ass…” McCaughan sings on the title track, exemplifying an attitude present throughout the album. As songs, these two mood pieces are both sadly flawed. “Bright Ideas,” with its shuffling melody and less than inspiring chorus, clocks in at a daunting 5:17. Three minutes into the song you can’t help but feel that it has lost what little energy it began with, and the final two minutes serve only to bludgeon you with a concept and style that isn’t a particularly good one.
“Truckstop Cassettes,” on the other hand, begins with nothing but promise. Layered acoustic guitars, simple strings, and quietly menacing percussion blend seamlessly with a haunting double-tracked vocal. But when it comes time for a hook, we get only the sucker’s lament, “I thought my eyes had seen it all,” mixed in with some soaring strings. Apart from track four, this is the most disappointing moment on the album. “Truckstop Cassettes” could have been a down-tempo masterpiece, and instead settles for the pretty good. It’s a shame more couldn’t have been done for such great instrumental interplay.
Despite the interesting stylistic avenues taken on “Bright Ideas,” Portastatic remains most comfortable with the rockers, and Mac delivers the goods on this front. Teamed with “White Wave” are “Through With People,” “The Soft Rewind,” and “The Center of the World,” all of which rock hard with polish, melody, and depth. For the meat and potatoes fan, these songs will probably rescue a good impression of the album from the potential pitfalls of interesting but sometimes awkward experiments.
After the jarring shock of “I Wanna Know Girls,” it could be easy to give up on Bright Ideas, but giving the record a few full spins reveals an artist near the top of his game. Sure, Mac doesn’t deliver on every track, but where he fails, he fails trying at something more. Regardless of its slick productions and pop melodies, Bright Ideas sounds very much like the work of a man who has no shame and nothing left to prove. That this attitude is so apparent is enough to mollify the ire felt over songs that might be deemed transgressions by the average indie kid, and make the album a worthy addition to the Merge Records canon and indie rock history.
Superchunk – Come Pick Me Up
The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic
Counting Crows – Hard Candy