The idea that Portastatic is now Mac McCaughan’s primary creative outlet is abundantly clear on their ninth album, Be Still Please, a record that manages to curtail both his chops as one of indie-rock’s premiere songwriters and as his recent forays into film scoring. Vast and adorably catchy, McCaughan shows tremendous signs of forward movement while traveling down directions that he probably wouldn’t have been able to within the confines of the Superchunk line-up.
Kicking things off with the sweeping orchestration of “Sour Shores” (mp3), the listener can imagine how his former band would have turned the chorus into an Orange amplifier crunch-fest. Instead, it’s the punctuation of strings and acoustic guitars that’s in the forefront. Occasionally, there’s a fair amount of “I wonder if Superchunk will ever get back together…” when he does this, but more often, there are times when you’re positively glad the amplifiers are switched off.
“Black Buttons” is probably the best song that benefits from the softer side. Because of the restraint, the appeal of backing vocalist Laura Cantrell is clearly heard, giving the song both a new dimension and an entirely new emotion in the process. As to why we’ve never heard this side of McCaughan before, perhaps he explains it when he says: “They never got the message / for their ears are all of tin.”
Maybe “You Blanks” is more telling as to why we’re now seeing these subtle nuances, as he passively teems “All my songs used to end the same way / Everything’s going to be okay / You fuckers make that impossible to say.” Consider his approach: a decade ago, Mac would have been screaming those lyrics while today he understands the words are powerful enough, even while a gentle oboe floats above the profanity.
Be Still Please manages to cover a lot of unique (for Mac) ground in one forty-minute package. From country-tinged laments (“Getting Saved”), middle-aged musings (“Cheers and Applause”), to the most beautiful song he has ever recorded (“Like A Pearl”), McCaughan is able to balance his experience as an indie-rock veteran with the wide-eyed optimism of some of his label’s more recent signings.
This, of course, may be frustrating to some as they watch his label mates receive all of the attention while Be Still Please only gets noticed among Mac’s usual fan base. It deserves better than that, and it deserves better than to say “It’s McCaughan’s best work since Superchunk.” There are some moments in which Be Still Please feels like it’s his best work ever.
Portastatic – “Song for a Clock”