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
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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

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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