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Bright Ideas

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Album Review

Portastatic's Bright Ideas might just be their best record yet. Seeing as how the track record of Mac McCaughan's group is scattered with nothing but low-key gem after gem, that is high praise. It is the first full album he has released since his main band, Superchunk, went into the clichéd realm of indefinite hiatus, and while only Mac knows if any of these songs could have ended up as Superchunk songs, if they had the record they appeared on would have been hailed as a triumphant return to form. (Not that they really ever slumped anywhere except in the eyes of the indie press.) Those are really side issues though because all that really matters here is how wonderful Bright Ideas is. Broken into equal parts introspective and beautiful ballads and jumping rockers, the record is at once lively as heck and full of poetic insight. It feels like the product of a teenage heart and an adult (with kids) mind. As usual the music (as played by a core group of fellow Superchunker Jim Wilbur on bass and Matthew McCaughan on drums) is tighter than Tim Duncan on the free throw line during the NBA finals. McCaughan's vocals are pushed to the point of breaking, though he is able to apply the brakes now and then, and his lyrics are intimate, always interesting, and often hilarious. Basically everything you've come to expect from a McCaughan product but with some slight improvements. Songs like "Little Fern" and "I Wanna Know Girls" are more tender than anything McCaughan has issued while up-tempo rockers like "Through With People" and "The Soft Rewind" are as peppy and catchy as anything the Chunk ever did. Head and shoulders above everything is the awesome "Truckstop Cassettes," an elegiac tale of a love-struck and life-changing road trip set to a calmly rolling rhythm caressed by a melancholy violin, acoustic guitars and bass, cheap keyboards, and Mac's sweet-as-cherry-pie vocals. When his best songs are rounded up, it will be right up near the front with the likes of "Driveway to Driveway," "My Noise," and "Hello Hawk." The simple fact that Mac continues to release solid albums after so many years of writing and recording is impressive. That he is still releasing records as sparkling, emotionally involving, and memorable as Bright Ideas is nothing short of miraculous.


Formed: 1992 in United States

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Mac McCaughan became an indie rock hero while fronting Superchunk and by founding and managing the successful Merge Records -- Portastatic was the outlet for his solo recordings and songs that didn't quite fit his day job band. The side project began in 1992 when Tom Scharpling of 18 Wheeler Records asked McCaughan to release some of his lo-fi four-track recordings; he obliged with the singles "Sandals with White Socks" and "Starter." Then in 1994 McCaughan released an entire Portastatic album, I...
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Bright Ideas, Portastatic
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