An indie rock musician makes a film soundtrack. You know what’s next: abstract, tuneless bleepings; tastefully reverberated clunkings; dissonant bowed strings signifying loneliness . . . so much loneliness. But there’s nothing like that here. Looking For Leonard is a soundtrack album, but it’s still a Mac McCaughan record. The leader of Superchunk and renown side project slut is incapable of doing anything untuneful, and this is no exception.
McCaughan, working here under his Portastatic moniker, has chosen to interpret his role as film composer in the classical sense. His big, brash compositions evoke Angelo Badalamenti or even John Williams (in a good way), meaning they work quite well as pop songs. Whether or not they work as film music is a different question—one that’s irrelevant for now since the film is still unreleased—but as an instrumental pop record, Looking For Leonard is an unpretentious gem.
McCaughan’s first smart decision is to use instruments he is familiar with: mainly rock instruments. Besides guitar and some very live sounding drums, there are the inevitable movie strings. Though normally a sappy downer, here they are recorded close-up and rosiny, more Mellotron than symphony orchestra. On the quiet songs, McCaughan makes particularly elegant use of feedback, at times evoking Ry Cooder or even Neil Young in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.
Flipping through the songs on Looking For Leonard uncovers a startling range of styles: power-poppy but mournful on “Looking For Leonard Theme”, country shuffle meets chamber pop on “Stealing Romance”. As on recent Superchunk records, McCaughan seems to be constantly looking for new ways to make pop music interesting.
Although his main band is waning in popularity as the remaining indie guitar rock fans get too old to go to club shows, Mac McCaughan continues to develop as a musician and a songwriter. If unconventional means are what it takes to get his music to the public, then may he continue firing on all available cylinders. Ten-odd years into his career, I doubt even McCaughan knew he had this much music in him.