Since forming Superchunk in 1989, and rocketing to the attention of major labels in the wake of Nirvana and the Great Indie Rock Band Signing in the early ‘90s, Mac McCaughan has quietly stuck to his guns, remaining fiercely independent. Though Superchunk would have undoubtedly become an even bigger success on a major label with their catchy, fuzzed-out guitar pop, they preferred complete artistic control, releasing a string of hit albums on Merge Records, run by McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. His unwavering adherence to the DIY ethic has made McCaughan an icon, and turned Chapel Hill, North Carolina into an indie rock mecca on par with Washington, Seattle, Chicago, and Olympia.
In 1994, McCaughan released his first album of solo four-track recordings, I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle, and Portastatic was born. Future recordings saw McCaughan enlisting the help of friends to flesh out his material, including Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss, Helium’s Ash Bowie, and Lambchop’s Jonathan Marx. He even released a tropicalia EP that paid tribute to Brazilian musicians. All in all, McCaughan has been successful in maintaining a solo career that is its own entity and which doesn’t hearken back to the sound of Superchunk.
Up until now, Portastatic was strictly a side-project, allowing McCaughan to release material that wouldn’t quite fit the Superchunk mould. However, Autumn Was a Lark marks the graduation of Portastatic into full band status. Asked to tour with friends Yo La Tengo in the spring of 2003, McCaughan quickly got a group together and adapted his songs for a full band performance. Autumn Was a Lark, recorded after the tour, is a departure from the more intimate sound of earlier Portastic releases, and finds McCaughan continuing in the vein of Summer of the Shark, mining the same territory as the guitar-driven pop of Superchunk, though with less stellar results.
The album features five studio-recorded songs and ten bonus acoustic-only tracks, culled from McCaughan’s radio performances. Of those five studio tracks, only the title track is brand new, followed by three covers and a reinterpretation of “In the Lines” from Summer of the Shark.
“Autumn Got Dark” kicks things off, and is also the disc’s lone highlight. Energetic and with the recklessness that marked Superchunk’s best material, “Autumn Got Dark” is a wonderful, catchy pop tune. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up”, and Ronnie Lane’s “One for the Road” are all adequate covers, but nothing memorable. “In the Lines” also suffers a similar fate.
The ten acoustic bonus tracks, a mix of old and new Portastatic songs, quickly reveal how much additional instrumentation is a key to the success of McCaughan’s songs. Stripped bare, these songs quickly blend into one another, as there is nary a hook to hang onto. Though McCaughan’s distinctive nasal voice easily carries Superchunk and Portastatic, in these acoustic renditions it lacks the immediacy that usually makes him so compelling.
Unfortunately, Autumn Was a Lark plays out as a holding pattern. After the title track steals the show, the rest of the record feels flat and lifeless. One wonders if McCaughan is biding his time waiting to be reunited with his Superchunk friends. If Portastatic is going to continue moving toward full band arrangements, McCaughan is going to have to find a way to reinvent his songs, and retain his identity as he did on previous albums. Where his earlier material was clearly defined, and markedly different than Superchunk, his newer material, for better or for worse, will find listeners wondering what it would’ve sounded like in the hands of the band that first shot him to fame.