Music

Portastatic: Be Still Please

Another excellent addition to the Portastatic catalogue, this time expanding Mac McCaughan's orchestral pop leanings.


Portastatic

Be Still Please

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2006-10-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

Let's get on with this: Mac McCaughan must be in his forties by now, so has he mellowed with age? Not really. He's nimbly avoiding insignificance by continuing to craft intelligent indie-pop songs that should be heard by more people than they actually reach. That fact leads fans to believe they've got privileged knowledge, of a hidden gem of an artist who sings privately for them alone. Let's not be greedy -- this proficient musician's made another golden album of smart, leisurely songs that fluctuate between calm beauty and enthusiastic pop.

Apparently McCaughan took a more active role in the recording of Be Still Please than on the last album, but it still comes across as more evolution than return. Taking the slightly rootsy feel of 2005's Bright Ideas as the jumping-off point, Be Still Please incorporates more orchestral pop, jazz, and even classical arrangements, perhaps informed by McCaughan's recent soundtrack work. These newer elements reside with all the familiar elements of Portastatic's indie-rock: Brian Wilson harmonies, Bob Dylan rough poetry, roots-country overtones, and so on.

A constant subtext is McCaughan's keen political sensibility. It comes through on his blog, and it comes through in his lyrics. Most immediately obvious in this regard is "You Blanks":

All my songs used to end the same way

Everything's going to be OK

You fuckers make that impossible to say

What makes the song work is this tension between the deeply disappointed lyrical content and the instrumentation, all smooth Moog keyboards and oboe melody, a really effective pop sound. Elsewhere, though, an engagement with the state of the world creates songs that thrill with frustrated anger, or rest beautifully in resignation.

It's an indie-rock staple to take a less well-known figure in the cultural or artistic fields and make them the subject of homage, but seldom is it as energetically rendered as on "I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)". That's Arthur Dove, the American landscape painter from the early 20th Century, influenced by Matisse and the French impressionists (had to look that one up on Wikipedia). The song, though, is upbeat, straightforward pop, heralding its conceit in the first bar and never looking back.

Portastatic can sound like many other bands that lie and have lain in the "indie rock" category, but I want to highlight the debt to Bob Dylan (it's not just on Be Still Please). "Getting Saved" has the phrasing, a bluesy intonation with smart insight: "I look forward to your call from the next town, saying / 'Retrieve me honey, but I'm not sorry I'm just poor'". The same holds for "Cheers And Applause", which also reminds me of Death Cab For Cutie, with its raw and gorgeous melody.

Throughout Be Still Please, no matter how much it conforms to overarching indie stereotypes, McCaughan draws fresh delights at every turn. So this set is a little more intimate, smaller in scale than some of his other work. It's gorgeous and necessary. Take a listen to "Sour Shores", the first track from the album, and then listen to it again. A modest prediction: you'll be totally won over by this tight-packed, nimble song. It's just one of nine on this excellent addition to the Portastatic catalogue.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.