I know little about Portastatic, and even less about Superchunk. I know that
I didn't follow Superchunk when they emerged from Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
more than a decade ago, because I was caught up in music you could dance to back
then, and because an annoying roommate of mine was into them, back when the only
college-town rock scene I followed was the one that surrounded me down in Champaign,
What I do know is that I first deliberately encountered the music of Superchunk/Portastatic main man Mac McCaughan a few years back after catching some glowing reviews of The Summer of the Shark, purportedly his response to 9/11. I bought it, I liked it a lot, I wanted to know a bit more… but a few random purchases of some since-discarded Superchunk discs later, I found myself feeling a much stronger affinity for Mac's side project than the mother ship.
Which is all cool for those of us who live solidly in the present and future tense, what with Superchunk now on indefinite hiatus and Portastatic now a full-fledged power trio (with Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur on bass and Mac's brother Matthew on drums) instead of just a studio project. And it's especially cool if it means that more spine-tinglingly great albums like Bright Ideas are to come.
While on a whole Bright Ideas plays like the musical yin to Summer of the Shark's yang, the album-opening title track serves as a perfect bridge between the two albums, a melancholy, down-tempo arrangement cushioning Mac's raspy whisper of a voice, the intimacy compelling you closer. But not too close, lest the big AM-radio sound of "Through With People" blast you back, Portastatic pushing into a power pop sound that predominates throughout the album even as the singer's fatalistic streak continues, Mac intent on being "the hymnal in your church of loneliness."
The loud guitars continue through "White Wave" and the massive hit in a better universe that is "I Wanna Know Girls," a sugary confection that rides the brilliant opening couplet of "I wanna know girls, don't wanna know men/ I'm already stuck inside the head of one of them" through nearly five glorious minutes of pure guitar pop for now people, with a demented, minute-long guitar solo suggestive of labelmates Dinosaur Jr. closing things out.
And the high points keep on coming. The somber "Truckstop Cassettes" sounds like something I can only describe as '60s noir, with strings suggestive of some great lost Lesley Gore track elbowing against bits of psychedelic organ, with the American Music Club's rhythm section of Tim Mooney (who recorded the album in his San Francisco studio) on drums and Danny Pearson on upright bass keeping things steady despite the singer's sad mantra of "the tape ate the player ate the tape ate me."
The penultimate track, "Center of the World," is pure balls-out rock, with guitars that want to kill your mama and a self-conscious Mac going on about evil and nothingness and lies and deceit before copping to the fact that "it's still just a string of words" while the music sends us on home. Closing with the mellow "Full of Stars" seems a deliberate choice to end things on a sincere and quiet note, acoustic guitars and violin taking us on a soothing ride to the stars.
The genie's out of the bottle, Mac seems to be saying throughout Bright Ideas, and it's up to us to try to make it through despite the threatening darkness. And if Portastatic continue to make music this pessimistic yet life-affirming, the world may yet continue to seem a warm, bright place.