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Portastatic

Some Small History

(Merge; US: 9 Sep 2008; UK: Available as import)

Mac McCaughan has always been generous with his ever-growing back catalog of songs. With Superchunk, he released three singles and b-sides collections, the last of which, A Cup of Sand, was a packed-full two-disc affair. And now, after offering up demo versions of his last two Portastatic albums to preordering customers, McCaughan has released Some Small History, 44 tracks he’s recorded over the last 17 years or so both on his own and with the help of friends. It’s a long and imperfect collection, but it can hardly be called bloated. In fact, to malign this collection for inconsistency is to miss the point. McCaughan has given us a glimpse into his archives not to show us a set of products, but to show us a process, to see him evolve as a songwriter, and to see Portastatic grow from a 4-track solo side project into an essential indie rock band.


The collection’s 44 songs are not lined up chronologically for us on Some Small History since, as Mac points out in the liner notes, “all the lo-fi distortion and hiss in one place tires the ears”. Instead, he arranged the songs to let them all stand on their own, and some of his old bedroom recordings are served well by not being lumped together. Some, like the hot burn of “Starter”, show an early ‘90s Mac still working successfully with Superchunk’s lo-fi crunch. But other early tracks like “Race You Home”, “Make You Up”, or “Lousy Penpal” find Mac mining the more intimate sound of Portastatic, where the hiss and distortion wrap these heartbreaking songs in a lonesome warmth. You can feel him getting more comfortable as a singer-songwriter, easing into the creak of his voice, toning down his nasal shout to fit the mood of these songs.


There are also a good number of demos here for more well-known Portastatic material. “Spying on the Spys”, “A Cunning Latch”, “I Wanna Know Girls”, and “Little Fern” are all shown in their early stages here, and though they all are great full-band tracks, these solo demos show how deeply embedded the melodies are, how brilliantly eccentric Mac’s guitar leads can be all on their own. Like with Superchunk, Mac’s leads and solos peppered throughout these tracks are unbridled fits of energy, of joy, or frustration. It seems unlikely sounds so wild could come so early in the process for some of these tracks, but there they are.


And on the other side of the coin, we are presented with a few newer versions of old tracks. “Had”, originally on the first Portastatic full-length, I Hope Your Heart is Not Brittle, is shown here as a full-band track. Mac and company take the unassuming album version and turn it into what it was always meant to be, a towering rock anthem. It’s easily the biggest sounding Portastatic song in the band’s huge catalog, and it brilliantly meshes mid-career Superchunk’s heavy guitar attack with the melody-driven pop of Mac’s bedroom recordings.


But Some Small History is not all experiments and demos. Some songs here equal anything Mac’s ever put on a Portastatic full-length. The title track is a catchy bit of space-touched acoustic pop. The hard rocking “Trajectory” matches up to any track on Bright Ideas, the album it was ultimately left off. “Power Supply” has all the warmth and intimacy of Mac’s early recordings but with enough grinding guitars to give it the muscle to make it stand out.


All of this original material, with its surprising consistency spread out over so many years, should be enough to make Some Small History a worthwhile collection. But perhaps most striking here are the covers Mac has included. There are plenty of them, including songs originally recorded by the Undertones, Galaxie 500, Ryan Adams, Hot Chip, American Music Club, Bob Dylan, and two by the Magnetic Fields. In almost every instance, from the simple acoustic rendering of the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” to the surprisingly affecting full-band take on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, Mac strips away signifiers from the original and shows us the underlying emotions. He gets at the heart of these songs and reveals to us what he loves about them, and what we should love too.


His take on Hot Chip’s “Boy from School”, again a simple acoustic rendition, reveals the electro-pop tune to be a heartbreaking picture of isolation. And though the Portastatic version of Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” hangs onto the original’s alt-country twang, Mac brilliantly speeds it up to be more of a road song, one that winds up being sadder with its highway speed than the trudge of Adams’ version. In the covers, and throughout Mac’s entire catalog of songs, we see someone who is a music fan first and foremost. He’s got two bands, runs maybe the best indie rock label going, and is clearly not short on strong material to record. But in the end, that title—Some Small History—reflects not the sum of Mac’s output but his ability to remain humble in the face of music. Because it is the music that matters.


Some of us are the music makers. Some of us are the fans. Mac McCaughan makes no distinction between the two.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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Portastatic - Song for a Clock
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2 Mar 2009
After founding the influential Merge Records, the inimitable Superchunk, and the prolific solo project known as Portastatic, Mac McCaughan is finally ready to look back at his career, his bands, and those wonderful four-track recordings that he thought he lost 'lo those many years ago.
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Mac McCaughan creates string charts and listens to tropicalia while running Merge Records, and he doesn't mind if you haven't listened to Superchunk.
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