[10 October 2006]
Let’s get on with this: Mac McCaughan must be in his forties by now, so has he mellowed with age? Not really. He’s nimbly avoiding insignificance by continuing to craft intelligent indie-pop songs that should be heard by more people than they actually reach. That fact leads fans to believe they’ve got privileged knowledge, of a hidden gem of an artist who sings privately for them alone. Let’s not be greedy—this proficient musician’s made another golden album of smart, leisurely songs that fluctuate between calm beauty and enthusiastic pop.
Apparently McCaughan took a more active role in the recording of Be Still Please than on the last album, but it still comes across as more evolution than return. Taking the slightly rootsy feel of 2005’s Bright Ideas as the jumping-off point, Be Still Please incorporates more orchestral pop, jazz, and even classical arrangements, perhaps informed by McCaughan’s recent soundtrack work. These newer elements reside with all the familiar elements of Portastatic’s indie-rock: Brian Wilson harmonies, Bob Dylan rough poetry, roots-country overtones, and so on.
A constant subtext is McCaughan’s keen political sensibility. It comes through on his blog, and it comes through in his lyrics. Most immediately obvious in this regard is “You Blanks”:
All my songs used to end the same way
Everything’s going to be OK
You fuckers make that impossible to say
What makes the song work is this tension between the deeply disappointed lyrical content and the instrumentation, all smooth Moog keyboards and oboe melody, a really effective pop sound. Elsewhere, though, an engagement with the state of the world creates songs that thrill with frustrated anger, or rest beautifully in resignation.
It’s an indie-rock staple to take a less well-known figure in the cultural or artistic fields and make them the subject of homage, but seldom is it as energetically rendered as on “I’m In Love (With Arthur Dove)”. That’s Arthur Dove, the American landscape painter from the early 20th Century, influenced by Matisse and the French impressionists (had to look that one up on Wikipedia). The song, though, is upbeat, straightforward pop, heralding its conceit in the first bar and never looking back.
Portastatic can sound like many other bands that lie and have lain in the “indie rock” category, but I want to highlight the debt to Bob Dylan (it’s not just on Be Still Please). “Getting Saved” has the phrasing, a bluesy intonation with smart insight: “I look forward to your call from the next town, saying / ‘Retrieve me honey, but I’m not sorry I’m just poor’”. The same holds for “Cheers And Applause”, which also reminds me of Death Cab For Cutie, with its raw and gorgeous melody.
Throughout Be Still Please, no matter how much it conforms to overarching indie stereotypes, McCaughan draws fresh delights at every turn. So this set is a little more intimate, smaller in scale than some of his other work. It’s gorgeous and necessary. Take a listen to “Sour Shores”, the first track from the album, and then listen to it again. A modest prediction: you’ll be totally won over by this tight-packed, nimble song. It’s just one of nine on this excellent addition to the Portastatic catalogue.