I take comfort in the fact that there will be enough original media created in my lifetime to keep me completely distracted. On Portastatic’s seventh full-length, Mac McCaughan (who, when he’s not working on this project, is co-owner of Merge Records and had fronted Superchunk until it went on indefinite hiatus) has apparently had enough of it all.
Over the course of Bright Ideas, channels will be choked off, the media will strip us of our senses, people will recite movie lines in lieu of original thought, we’ll ride the “white wave of every innocuous spot on the dial,” and tape players will chew up truck-stop cassettes. I suppose that’s a legitimate stance to take if you’re an artist blessed with the ability to arrange words and guitar pieces in a manner that’s pleasing to others, but I get bored when Laguna Beach isn’t on. At least McCaughan acknowledges the irony of voicing his displeasure through the format he’s trashing. On “Center of the World” he concedes: “Yeah, it’s still just a string of words, and I’m full of nothing.”
Part of Superchunk’s charm was that, try as he might, McCaughan’s perpetually adolescent voice was never quite able to out-muscle the distorted guitar buzz. On Bright Ideas his brother Matt works drums and Jim Wilbur of Superchunk takes bass, but it’s the vocals that move to the forefront. And there’s a certain poetry to the way McCaughan indirectly addresses his themes. Many of the tracks concentrate on one physical object — a cassette tape, a girl, a fern — and its relation to a specific time, place or memory.
McCaughan’s frustration with the constant barrage of light and sound is subtly seething beneath his sensory perception of these objects. You get the feeling on the road-tripping guitar of “Little Fern” or the eerie “Truckstop Cassettes” that McCaughan could just hole up in a shack in the North Carolina woods to escape it all. There’s an endless supply of catchy rock riffs here. “Through With People,” “White Wave” and “The Soft Rewind” are the centerpieces of an album that otherwise only feels like a side project, especially when the violin takes the whole spotlight, as it does in “Full of Stars” and “I Wanna Know Girls.”
You have to admire McCaughan’s body of work. He’s raised a generation of pre-Internet indie-rockers with Superchunk while bringing Portastatic into its eleventh year on his own Merge Records. It’d be easy for a guy with such a substantial resume to splurge a bit. At ten tracks, Bright Ideas doesn’t have a lot of fat, but it ultimately feels like it could have been more successful on the EP format McCaughan is so fond of.