April 17, 2003

Test Spin: Portastatic

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Chapel Hill, North Carolina has been making a name for itself over the past ten years not just as the home to college basketball’s most established team (UNC), but also as haven for a budding community of artists and musicians. Mac McCaughan is a longstanding and active member of this community from his work with Superchunk to managing Merge Records. Amongst all of his other activities, McCaughan frequently found himself turning to sideproject, Portastatic, for a personal creative outlet. Yet with his latest release, The Summer of the Shark, it seems Mac tries bring Portastatic from the periphery to the forefront of his music career.

With an upcoming tour as the opener for Yo La Tengo, Portastatic seems to bridge two genres in particular, creating a blend of lo-fi indie grooves while also delving into some acoustic pop-rock standards. Besides a handful of guest appearances, Mac plays and sings everything on the album, and in turn, the songs become his narrative. His plaintive, slightly nasal voice colors the album with reflective ponderings and a pastiche of vivid memories. Stripped down instrumentation, with the occasional burst of something electric, a bowed instrument, or a horn, characterize many of the songs on the album. In many ways, Mac’s broad brush of simplicity frees his music to assume a number of different forms.

While “Windy Village” rocks out to fuzz-heavy guitar riffs along with a pounding drum line, the opener “Oh Come Down” is a wistful, acoustically-driven jaunt — much of the album oscillates between these two styles. Taken as a whole, Summer of the Shark presents a smattering of lo-fi rock tracks that sometimes linger in your mind long after the CD has stopped spinning, and at other times, go in one ear and out the other. There is no doubt, however, that Mac has knack for writing some catchy songs.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman