Portastatic

The Summer of the Shark

by Rob Horning

4 June 2003

 
cover art

Portastatic

The Summer of the Shark

(Merge)
US: 8 Apr 2003
UK: Available as import

After a few times through, most albums will leave some trace of themselves, some shred of melody or some lyrical phrase, that will make the whole record feel comfortable and familiar. Some hooks implant themselves so deeply that they stay in one’s head involuntarily, mentally replayed repeatedly until one is forced to decide whether one loves or hates the fact that the music has assumed control over one’s mind. Portastatic (the solo project of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan) has created an album that does neither. In fact, The Summer of the Shark stubbornly refuses to be memorable, becoming less distinct and more elusive with each listen. This perpetual anonymity benefits some songs, allowing the subtle mood swings they chronicle to surprise with each listen. For example, the album’s opener, “Oh Come Down”, begins with some acoustic soft-rock finger-picking reminiscent of Loggins and Messina, and features Mac McCaughan singing a plaintive duet with Quasi’s Janet Weiss. But when her voice drops out, and McCaughan’s suddenly naked voice assumes a greater poignancy, it consistently feels satisfying and appropriate, because one never remembers to expect it. The same goes for the jaunty, well-orchestrated march-time break and the distorted guitar solo that follows it—each manages to push the song in a direction one never expects but without frustrating one’s expectations. “Clay Cakes”, too, succeeds on this same self-effacing level, triumphing by virtue of hooks that don’t embed.

But other songs are hard to recall for less fortunate reasons. Some songs—the lugubrious “Swimming Through Tires” and the “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” rip-off “In the Lines”—play right into the inherent weaknesses of McCaughan’s froggy, timbre-less voice, which is generally most effective when he is yelling. In these tracks he admirably attempts to reach emotional registers foreign to Superchunk albums, but his singing betrays him, rendering his efforts flat and lifeless. Unlike fellow one-man bander James McNew, whose vocals carry emotion effortlessly and naturally, and invest his lyrics with rich levels of meaning not implicit on the page; McCaughan must rely entirely on the words to carry the full weight alone, and they are not always that strong. “I am amazed and scared like it’s a crime,” for instance, is as inscrutable sung as it is read.

Other songs are too reminiscent of the style McCaughan assayed more successfully in previous efforts. “Drill Me”, “Windy Village” and “Chesapeake” are simply less amplified versions of the uptempo rock more compellingly rendered on No Pocky For Kitty and On the Mouth, Superchunk’s superlative early ‘90s records. These songs fail because they are obliterated by McCaughan’s earlier triumphs, but they at least make for interesting listening. However, this cannot be said of “Hey Salty”, “Don’t Disappear”, and “Noisy Night”, which are examples of that repellant brand of prettified and wholly disposable pop that the Pernice Brothers have perfected, full of affected lapses into falsettto and bland, universalizing (i.e. trivializing) lyrics about summer, or childhood or love. One of the things that made Superchunk so appealing was that McCaughan’s declamatory singing made rallying cries of the most ambivalent sentiments, accurately conveying what it feels like when one is young, when one’s own contradictory emotions seem like the only thing anyone should be able to recognize, the only thing in the world worth shouting about.

But these cloying songs from The Summer of the Shark trade that visceral feeling of youth for the nostalgic and contrived memory of it, making “mature” professionalized music notable only for its depressing similarity to the AOR pabulum manufactured by the likes of the Jayhawks and the Counting Crows. This music seems designed to smooth away ambiguous and conflicting emotional states, reducing feelings to reified nuggets to be pleasantly consumed. One hopes that despite appearances that these tranquilized tracks don’t constitute McCaughan’s effort to make adult music. Behind such efforts would be the frightening assumption that adulthood consists of surrendering the desperation that animates attempts to resolve inner contradictions and accepting the pre-ordained solutions that this kind of embalming songcraft epitomizes. The banality here neutralizes the complexity and thoughtfulness one finds elsewhere on this record, giving the false sense that the whole thing is more saccharine than it really is. Sadly, that’s what happens when the good songs are as forgettable as the bad.

Topics: portastatic
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