Portastatic: Autumn Was a Lark

Kevin Jagernauth

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.


Autumn Was a Lark

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2003-10-07
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.