Yes, Bright Ideas is a different kind of Portastatic album.
Call it leaving a protective shell: For the seventh full-length in a "side project" that has become more productive than mothership Superchunk, Bright Ideas was recorded in Seattle at Tiny Telephone, John Vanderslice's analog San Francisco space. Already, The Mountain Goats, Death Cab for Cutie, John Doe and a laundry list of others have turned it into one of America's best studios.
McCaughan is new to American Music Club's Tim Mooney as producer, too, though Mooney's string of credits with Mark Kozelek, Chuck Prophet and his own band seem to have prepared him well enough.
But, most importantly, Portastatic isn't a solo gig with supporting players recording sporadically this time around; more than anything, this band is just that--a band, a rock band. Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur mans the bass on Bright Ideas, and Matt McCaughan, Mac's younger brother, is behind the kit on most tracks.
"Don't think you can lose me, 'cause my love is like an uzi / It weighs a ton / Yeah, my love weights a ton," McCaughan sings in the final verse of "I Wanna Know Girls," its big, meaty hook recalling vintage Springsteen with its jangly guitar, perfectly smiling two-part harmonies and driving-into-the-hook drums.
One word out, McCaughan settles on a celebratory "Hey!" just as the drums come down in a splash and his guitar--soaked in reverb and echo--comes back up and grinds through a solo as big as most any Superchunk ever found on tape.
That straight-ahead, big rock splash is intact for seven of the album's 10 tracks, ostensibly shirking off notions that maturing artists have to go the way of, say, Eric Clapton: mellow, boring, done. Instead, McCaughan sounds like a malcontent, a young punk, nervous and flinching: In "Through with People," McCaughan gives up on the boorishly stubborn and clean; he sees a "stunning sunset" as "the last of the good light" during "The Soft Rewind," glimpsing a bit of John Vanderslice's beautiful despondency.
That despairing, world-weary, tired-of-trite framework apexes at the "Center of the World": "There's a black light glowing at the center of the world / And I'm losing my sight / There's a black light imploding at the center of the world / Full of nothing tonight."
But it's not all full-throttle, as three of the album's highlights have the volume on low. The opening title track runs an easy, Tom Waits-keel, McCaughan stifling his worry and whispering from the back of his throat. "None of my jokes ever make me laugh," he sings, worrying everyone. It's fitting that the album starts soft, as it ends that way with "Full of Stars," a string-bound, ponderous gem. By that point, McCaughan has come full circle, finding some redemption in consolation with his daughter, Oona: "It may take seven seas full of salty water," he croons, "but if you listen little girl, there's an ocean in your ears."
At this point, Merge may be the hottest indie property in America, and this release isn't a cooling effect. McCaughan has beaten himself: This Portastatic album--the most satisfying, consistent and crave-worthy yet--raises the bar much too high for any mere side project. Not that it is a side project, or anything.
Portastatic headlines the Troika Music Festival on Saturday, Aug. 28 at 305 South in Durham.