Portastatic’s McCaughan clears away the noise

There’s a great line on Be Still Please, the latest Portastatic record. In what may be the most barbed lyrical diatribe of last year, Mac McCaughan sings, “All my songs used to end the same way/Everything’s going to be okay/You fuckers make that impossible to say”.

The seething, indignant chorus of the song, a pugnacious rocker titled “You Blanks”, perfectly encapsulates belief turning to disillusionment and the idealism of youth giving way to the compromises of adulthood. All is not lost, however, for in the same tune McCaughan sings, “Politics was foreign, sex for when you’re older/That got better, the rest got worse”. Put that together with the line “I have filthy thoughts about you/I hope you have the same for me when I’m gone” from the stark centrepiece of the album, “Getting Saved”, and sex, at least, is one reliably positive aspect of getting older. It also seems to be very much on the mind of the singer-guitarist.

“You know, it’s probably been in my lyrics since the first Superchunk record,” says McCaughan, who also fronts the long-running indie-rock standard-bearer. The Straight reaches him at the Chapel Hill offices of Merge Records, the label he formed with ’chunk bassist Laura Ballance in 1989. “But maybe it was more obscure or something. You know—girls, relationships.” Over the years, too, he’s lost some of the self-consciousness that prompted him to bury his lyrics and vocals amidst Superchunk’s glorious noise. “As you get older, you just don’t care as much what people think. You realize, ”˜This is what I do, why shouldn’t people hear the words?’ ”

McCaughan’s lyrics are always worth a listen, but with Portastatic, he has evolved into one of the indie scene’s most reliable tunesmiths, able to fashion songs of brooding complexity and rocking vitriol with a seemingly endless supply of hooks. On Be Still Please, he hits his stride with the sweeping, string-swollen opener “Sour Shores” and the piano/violin marvel “Getting Saved”. “I’m in Love (With Arthur Dove)” is simply a great, old-fashioned, hook-spraying pop song, albeit one that pays tribute to American painter Dove (1880–1946), and modern art in general.

“I’m very interested in it [modern art],” says McCaughan. “It gives me a similar pleasure and excites me in the same way as music. It inspires me, and makes me think about things in a certain way. And I like anything that, when you’re looking at it or listening to it, makes you think ”˜How did they do that?’ There’s music that I like, but when you’re listening to it you just know it’s formulaic. You have an understanding of how it came to be. Then there are other things, especially in the art world, where you’re like, ”˜How did someone’s brain work that allowed them to end up with this?’ ”

Portastatic—already up to six albums, two soundtracks, and countless EPs, singles, and contributions to compilation albums—allows McCaughan more freedom to indulge in opulent pop songs about modern art than his role in the guitar-oriented four-piece that helped establish him. But his solo project doesn’t allow him to rock out the way Superchunk, a ferocious live act, does. There are tentative plans to write and record another ’chunk album—its most recent was 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up—but in the meantime, McCaughan unleashes his energy through Portastatic activities like touring with violinist Margaret White.

“On Be Still Please and on the last record, Bright Ideas, there are a lot of pretty full-on rock songs,” he says. “Maybe that’s why those records ended up having more rock stuff than previous Portastatic records—because Superchunk hasn’t been active.” In whatever guise he dons, McCaughan remains one of the most astute songwriters out there—even if he can no longer tell us everything’s going to be okay.

Portastatic opens for Camera Obscura at Richard’s on Richards on Tuesday (February 13).