Some Small History

Mac McCaughan has been hard at work, for a very, very long time. Starting Merge Records with Laura Ballance as a modest cassette and 7-inch label in 1989 as a vehicle for their band Superchunk and the rest of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina scene would have been enough. But, Superchunk soon got picked up by Matador, enabling widespread distribution and exposure for the band, not to mention throw-around money that would facilitate the growth of Merge into a reputable indie badge with a sizable cadre of top tier bands. While major labels were pushing compact discs into Wal-Marts across America, Merge was filling mom and pop record stores with actual wax, and good stuff at that. To this day, Merge counts the highest Billboard charting album from an independent label, (Arcade Fire’s Funeral), and hasn’t managed to fade into irrelevance like other, previously promising labels. Along with other ‘90s guitar rock powerhouses like Pavement, Archers of Loaf and Built to Spill, Superchunk were responsible for the post-Nirvana indie rock explosion. Two fuzzed out guitars, big drums, sweeping post-hardcore attack, an earnest (but never dippy) singer not afraid of the higher registers (McCaughan), Superchunk inspired the kids jaded by Nirvana’s unattainable fame to be true to their flannels and chucks, strap on Fenders, and let it blow.

Fortunately for us, all this wasn’t enough for McCaughan. Working under the solo moniker Portastatic, he’s been producing consistently listenable material in parallel with Superchunk and running Merge since 1993’s single “Starter.” Some Small History starts appropriately, with that song. Perhaps McCaughan picked up his guitar after a Superchunk rehearsal, probably having had enough with running through “Slack Motherfucker” and wanted to play something a bit more personal. Portastatic is born. The guitar is almost identical to that early Superchunk sound—straight amp-head distortion—but the drums are tinny and a little sloppy. There’s no bass guitar, the lyrics are only sort of distinguishable, and the production quality only slightly above Fisher-Price. This is the sound, the bored-in-the-living-
room-with-a-four-track sound, the “just hit record” sound, which would come to define Portastatic.

After this the compilation bounces around chronologically, showcasing the McCaughan’s prodigious songwriting skill and his ability to wring beauty out of every instrument he touches. “Sandals With White Socks” is acoustic guitar over rudimentary Casio drum programs and 16-bit synthesizer tone. The instrumental “La Pelicula” has dubbed out drums, trance-inducing synthesizers over sweeping guitar and keyboard melodies and would fit perfectly as the closing song in a road movie. Lyrically, McCaughan can turn the mundane into the compelling, and vocally can make sweeping generalities sound like topical poetry. On “Power Supply,” written in a “grip of malaise” after the 2004 presidential election, he pleads as if to an accusation “Though the mission that we had was humbled, it was worth a try. I was only looking for a power supply.” In an image mirroring Blake, “Your Own Cloud” calls to the dead: “Did you think that for me to hear you, you had to shout? Can you send blessings back? Is it cold or do you have your own cloud?” From the point of view of a flattened cigarette, “I’m the one no one will borrow. Fine today, but too trashed to smoke tomorrow,” McCaughan still elicits empathy on “Too Trashed To Smoke.”

Most of the Portastatic catalog is only McCaughan’s voice with a guitar and a keyboard, but eventually he would employ a full band to realize his songs live and record a few albums. “Skinny Glasses Girl” from the album Slow Note From A Sinking Ship gets this bombastic live band treatment, with a new droned out bridge built into the song. “A Cunning Latch,” from the same album, is presented in that same intimate living-room style, but stripped down to just guitar and an accompanying violin. The order of songs works strikingly well, like the best one-band mixed tape your big brother never made. Some Small History sounds just like it would be an album of new material rather than another boring collection of rarities, B-sides, and covers. And there are plenty of covers. There’s a peppy Ryan Adams cover, a wistful Undertones cover, a heartbreaking Prefab Sprout cover, a cheery Strawbs cover, a saccharine Magnetic Fields cover, a brooding Hot Chip cover, a reverent Galaxie 500 cover, an almost electro American Music Club cover, and a fully beautified Bob Dylan cover. Not one of these is a misstep. In fact, fans of McCaughan’s voice may even prefer his stripped down, sentimental versions as they encapsulate the heart of a true fan of the original cuts.

This compilation is in no way exhaustive, as some fans will notice. One glaring omission, “Do You Want To Buy A Bridge,” was deemed too “emo,” unfortunately (“I never loved you, but fucking you was great. And if you believe me, do you want to buy a bridge?”). But it’s companion A-side appears. Some of the sound quality is lacking (this taking into account the original recording quality), as a few masters couldn’t be located and McCaughan transferred them straight from the vinyl. This is hardly noticeable and admittedly nit-picking, but as there is absolutely nothing a fan could want more than a pile of their favorite artist’s throw away recordings and one-off covers, McCaughan gets a pass. After all, it isn’t as if he didn’t have anything better to do.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy