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Portastatic - Bright Ideas

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Artist: Portastatic

Album: Bright Ideas

Label: Merge

Review date: Sep. 12, 2005

American indie rock might be coming up on an age crisis. The genre’s identity as a guitar-driven outlet for overeducated musings has never really been in question, but at its peak in the first half of the 1990s indie rock was devoted primarily to the overeducated musings of twentysomethings. That it has retained that identity even as some of its leading lights have grown into their 30s and 40s testifies strongly to the endurance of genre forms, as well as to the fact that teens and twentysomethings – because we tend to think that everything is about us – remain indie rock’s primary audience. But what effect will maturity have on the genre? In June, The New Republic Online published a perceptive review of Stephen Malkmus’ Face the Truth that pointed out several instances in which Malkmus – now in his late 30s – seemingly let his lyrics devolve into platitudes about trying hard and not settling. Now Mac McCaughan, who formed the venerable Superchunk 16 years ago, has released Bright Ideas, his latest album under the Portastatic name, and one that contains several songs that suggest burnout, or at least creeping maturity.

McCaughan establishes that tone of resignation with his first two songs. On the opener, “Bright Ideas,” he sings that he “sanded down my edges but the world plays rough / I put my bright ideas right back in the box.” Then, on the provocatively titled “Through With People,” the very next track, he asks the world to “let me get some sleep in this bed / that I made it this far…And I’ll give all the lousy credit / To anyone who wants it / If they’ll just let me lower the bar.” The lyrics on “Through With People” are slightly overblown – and probably on purpose, too – but even theatrical misanthropy and cynicism can be difficult to get through. Ominously, this sounds like the voice of experience speaking.

Bright Ideas sounds like a more mature album, too. Portastatic used to be McCaughan’s experimental side project – although it bears noting that he has released several Portastatic albums since the last Superchunk album in 2001 – but there’s not much experimental about Bright Ideas. It’s a full-band, studio-based, old-fashioned rock album. None of the unpolished recording techniques of the first Portastatic albums or the tropicalia compositions of the Looking For Leonard soundtrack. The songs are reliably mid-tempo and catchy, although they certainly lack the heedless rush that made the first Superchunk albums such models of indie rock. Some, indeed, are slow and dreamy. The finale, “Full of Stars,” even has the hallmarks of a classic pop ballad – strings (yes, this is where they come in), a multi-tracked chorus, and echoing guitar and piano chords.

Of course, McCaughan is the same man who once wrote a single lambasting a particularly lazy coworker at Kinko’s, so cynicism and misanthropy are nothing new to his oeuvre. Nor does he let burnout or creeping maturity consume the album – “White Wave” seems to be a rather clever meditation on the overconsumption of media, and “Center of the World” is as good as any Superchunk single. So if indie rock is in an age crisis, what of it? With Bright Ideas and Face the Truth, the genre’s forebears released two of the year’s most consistently enjoyable rock albums.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of Portastatic

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Who Loves The Sun

Be Still Please

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View all articles by Tom Zimpleman

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