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Portastatic - Autumn Was A Lark

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Artist: Portastatic

Album: Autumn Was A Lark

Label: Merge

Review date: Nov. 30, 2003

The introspective, often solitary yin to Superchunk’s more assertive yang, Portastatic has long been a testing ground for Mac McCaughan’s new ideas and stylistic experiments. Although a very committed “side project”, Portastatic has nonetheless retained its secondary status largely because of McCaughan’s formal shifts and infrequent touring of the project. This started to change in the last few years, with a reasonably consistent band backing McCaughan and a more prolific release of material. Previously, Portastatic has been the name for McCaughan’s stripped-down indie pop, a collection of electronic and piano-based songs, a soundtrack, and an infamous Portuguese-language EP. Portastatic’s music tended to hint at where Superchunk’s sound might go, and as McCaughan’s main band has embraced a more eclectic sound, Portastatic has simultaneously become more defined, culminating in this year’s excellent Summer of the Shark.

Although obviously a response to September 11, the album resisted a direct approach or an attempt to make sense out of the whole human mess. Rather, McCaughan wisely used his personal emotions surrounding the time as a springboard for meditation on loss and the resulting confusions that sudden change can bring. It’s a beautiful, wonderfully detailed album that is Portastatic’s most cohesive to date, and possibly its best. Autumn Was A Lark, the band’s follow-up EP, is partly a tour keepsake, partly the result of Portastatic finally achieving “band” status and having some fun. In order to road-test the players, which include McCaughan’s brother Matt on drums, Portastatic played a standing gig at a local bar in Chapel Hill. To keep things interesting, the band learned some new versions of old songs, as well as a few covers, including some Faces and Springsteen tunes.

Although Autumn is album-length, its feel is decidedly low-key, its ambitions humbly restrained. Its function is not that of a follow-up to Summer but rather as a companion piece that documents a productive period for the band. As such, the record is eminently satisfying, with loose playing and a relaxed air. The second half of the record, consisting of acoustic and piano-led versions of Portastatic songs both old and new, is perhaps its best. This is particularly true on some of the older songs, such as “Isn’t That The Way”, which gets a new arrangement and melody on piano. Open and airy, the song is transformed from an acoustic throwaway into a delicate, beautiful gem. Other highlights include a rousing, almost soundalike cover of Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” and a full-band version of “In The Lines”, one of the more affecting songs from Summer Of The Shark.

This is the kind of release that appeals primarily to fans, but as such, it’s a great record, a welcome addition to Portastatic’s catalog, and a good batch of music in its own right. Like Portastatic’s tourmates Yo La Tengo, McCaughan has realized the potential in putting out a low-key release after a “big” album. No one is expecting something on the level of the full album, and the band is free to indulge itself a little. These reduced expectations, on both the part of the listener and the musician, can result in some of a band’s finer moments, as is the case on Autumn Was A Lark.

By Jason Dungan

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