Portastatic Be Still Please

[Merge; 2006]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: indie pop, bedroom pop, power-pop, chamber pop
Others: Superchunk, Fountains of Wayne, Arlo

Portastatic is a strange sort of beast as far as bands go: it's sometimes upbeat and power-poppy, other times slow and melancholic. I suppose that's how it goes for side projects ”” chances for artists to exercise their musical whims in a different, open outlet. But Portastatic isn't even your typical side project; sure, it used to be, back in the days when Superchunk was alive and kicking alongside Pavement and a whole host of other mid-'90s indie-rock sacred cows. Nowadays, Superchunk is a non-entity, and frontman Mac McCaughan is a little busier running Merge Records than he is with, you know, making music. Strange indeed.

None of which, of course, explains why Be Still Please sounds so much different from any other Portastatic record. Last year's Bright Ideas was fast and upbeat with smart lyrics and sharp hooks, exactly the sort of record one would expect from a former college-rock king. The Who Loves the Sun OST, meanwhile, was, well, not exactly fast and upbeat. And former Portastatic albums from the '90s, on the other hand, were downright mopey, an outlet from Superchunk's less mopey aesthetic. So, as far as output goes, Portastatic's hard to pin down.

Be Still Please is a little easier to pin down; it takes the upbeat sensibility of Bright Ideas and adds in some of the downtrodden details and browbeaten subject material of their older work, making something more compelling than Portastatic's ever been. Lead track "Sour Shores" is the perfect example; balancing sad, sweeping violin, minor-chorded acoustic guitar, and barely noticeable percussion against the soaring vocals and incredible catchiness of the choruses, the song strikes an incredible unity of penetrating angst and expectant optimism.

While none of the other tracks on Be Still Please manages to execute this sort of blend quite as well, they're all still very strong. From Bright Ideas-esque rockers like "I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)" — and what McCaughan has to do with some turn-of-the-century abstract artist is beyond me (yeah, that's right, I actually Wikipedia'd "Arthur Dove") — to the slow but hopeful "Getting Saved," with its occasional electric guitar and piano bangings, the album runs a wide range of emotions and sentiments. There's nothing quite as driving as last year's "Little Fern" or "The Soft Rewind," and there's nothing quite as depressing as old standards like the unhappy "Naked Pilsners," or as odd as "Before You Sailed Around the World." Instead, we get a mix of these styles that sounds surprisingly unique — oddly familiar but strikingly different.

The album cover is interesting: a gray seascape with black scrawled cursive lettering and McCaughan in a suit riding the waves on a purple inner tube. The possibilities for metaphor are endless: making the best of a dark situation? Some sort of bizarre mid-life crisis? Whimsical happiness and gloom, all in one? Maybe it doesn't relate to the music at all. But maybe it does - maybe McCaughan wants a visual representation of the triumph of hope over the opposition of depression, a sense that permeates the album. Maybe that's why he sings, "Well, all my songs used to end the same way:/ 'Everything's gonna be okay'/ You fuckers make that impossible to say" amid one of the very catchiest tunes he's ever written. And maybe that's why Be Still Please turned out so damn good.

1. Sour Shores
2. Black Buttons
3. I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)
4. Sweetness And Light
5. Getting Saved
6. You Blanks
7. Like A Pearl
8. Cheers And Applause
9. Song For A Clock