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Portastatic - Be Still Please

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Artist: Portastatic

Album: Be Still Please

Label: Merge

Review date: Oct. 9, 2006


Portastatic seems to have become sort of a catch-all for whatever Mac McCaughan feels like doing at the moment Superchunk-esque indie pop, Brazilian music, oboe-and string-laced soundtracks. With Be Still Please, the ninth full-length from this more-or-less solo project, McCaughan weaves threads from all past Portastatic incarnations into one happy-sad tapestry. Muscular, overdriven guitar pop coexists with winding oboe solos, strings underline wry laments and chamber music intervals collide with breathy Brazilian samba rhythms.

McCaughan has one of those boyish, excitable voices, the kind of tone that's always cracking under the sheer wonder of how cool everything is. He deploys it here across sunny melodies and winsome harmonies, so that you might not at first realize how dark the subject matter has become. Aging, death, the inexorable passage of time that's what these songs are about. You realize only gradually that when McCaughan pleads for skinny arms to be still, he is not talking about a wife or girlfriend or child; he's talking about a clock. Similarly, in exuberant opener "Sour Shores," the phrase "You feel young again...at the offer of a ride," McCaughan captures the bittersweetness of adventure and optimism after a certain age. You know it won't last, it will come to nothing, you'll feel ridiculous later, but your pulse quickens all the same.

The disc's three unconditional rockers "Sour Shores," "(I'm in Love with) Arthur Dove" and "You Blanks" break through first and ever-so-slightly outclass the slower numbers. "(I'm in Love with) Arthur Dove" is the poppiest of the three, paying verbal tribute to the early American abstract painter and slap-happy musical homage to Eric Carmen. "Sour Shores" is almost as straightforward, though its distorted guitar onslaught breaks for a delicate oboe refrain (that's Carrie Shull on the double-reed). "You Blanks" is the most blatant mid-life crisis song here, its sunny surfaces laced with venomous dissatisfaction. The lines are caustic and great here. "Oh to be humiliated / with such short memories / Redemption always waited" riding a breezy big gulp of melody, and a short history of Superchunk to Portastatic encapsulated in the refrain, "All my songs used to end this way / Everything's going to be okay / You fuckers make that impossible to say."

The slower songs take longer to warm to, but contain the same sorts of lacerating observation and wry humor. "Getting Saved," a Dylan-ish ramble about a bickering couple, ends with the singer imagining his runaway wife's calling from the next town, saying "Retrieve me, honey / But I'm not sorry / I'm just bored." And "Sweetness and Light," with its dreamy Bahian shuffle, is all sunshine on the surface, all withering dissatisfaction underneath.

Be Still Please is like an Escher painting, where, when you look one way, you see interlocking airplanes, turn it slightly to the right, and it becomes a tower of frogs. Its power reveals itself on two planes at once, embodying carefree pop and mid-life anguish simultaneously. When McCaughan sings, "Here comes a steep hill and now down we go," is he excited about the ride or fearful of the end? Both, and if you're anywhere over 30, you know exactly what he's talking about.

By Jennifer Kelly

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