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The Summer of the Shark & Autumn Was a Lark

Wednesday, Dec 10 2003
The name "Mac McCaughan" has become notorious in the indie-rock world for two reasons. Initially, it was because he fronted the quartet Superchunk, a group that first garnered attention in the mid-'90s with an upbeat brand of college-rock hooks and endearing post-grunge sloppiness. Somewhere along the way, however, Merge, which McCaughan had started with bandmate Laura Ballance as a venue for releasing their own and friend's records, blossomed into one of the biggest labels in the independent realm, having released albums by Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Magnetic Fields.

Portastatic is McCaughan's side project, one that has always seemed to take a back seat to the songwriter's other endeavors. That's why it comes as a shock that, under this alter-moniker, he has become so prolific and, well, good. This year found Portastatic releasing two records, the full-length The Summer of the Shark and the EP Autumn Was a Lark (which includes a few covers and additional live material). The works are clearly intended as companion pieces. In fact, Autumn's first lyric references the title of Summer.

Contrary to most side projects', Portastatic's latest works are varied in scope. Sparse, slow, acoustic numbers that highlight McCaughan's nasally, slightly out of tune vocals give way to rocked-out noise collages. Fluttering organs, arty, super-distorted electric guitar splatters, and minimalist electro-drums all make appearances. But the common thread in everything McCaughan touches -- a pop sensibility -- is always intact here. While the live material that closes Autumn gets a bit exhausting (this is the stuff only die-hards will listen to more than once), the rest of the recordings more than make up for it. The record's first track, "Autumn Got Dark," is beach ball bouncy, filled with uptempo distorted guitars, tons of snare hits, and playfully screamed melodies. On his cover of Springsteen's "Growin' Up," McCaughan adds thin, nerdy vocals to an otherwise beefy tune, but the effect is endearing. Later, on "In the Lines," he sings heart-on-his-sleeve anecdotes over straightforward country rock. Treat both records as two parts of a whole, and you'll be privy to one of the year's better indie-pop offerings. Not bad for something thrown together in spare time.

About The Author

Abigail Clouseau


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