Portatastic, Some Small History

Wayne Robins

By Wayne Robins

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Many indie label entrepreneurs with musical ability probably ask themselves the question: "If I didn't own the label, would I sign me?" Guitarist, singer/songwriter and Merge Records co-founder/co-owner Mac McCaughan has answered in the affirmative with both Superchunk and Portastatic, each of which have been around about as long as the 20-year-old label that hosts them. Portastatic's Some Small History is a rather vast archival undertaking: 44 tracks, singles, B-sides, album cuts, covers, promotional 7-inch releases and the like. If Superchunk is the arena alt-rock killer app, Portastatic is the low-tech workshop, a band to which the phrase "acoustic distortion" is not a contradiction.

A look at Mac’s Portastatic in 44 chapters

With the exception of set opener "Starter," Portastatic's spare, coherent-yet-blustery first recording, there's no particular order here (thanks, Mac), any more than there is a pattern to artists covered, other than with great respect and fearless vision: Dylan, Sandy Denny and the Strawbs, Ryan Adams, Galaxie 500 ("Tugboat"), American Music Club ("Firefly"), Hot Chip ("Boy from School") and the Magnetic Fields among them. Counterintuitive strategies abound: the Undertones 'raucous "Teenage Kicks" is gutsily executed as an acoustic love ballad. From the big originals pile, "Trajectory" could be a Nirvana B-side, "Soft Fruit" lounge reggae. "Easily Aroused" is pretty and stimulating, the swell pun "San Andreas Crouch" sounds better than its lowest-fi origins might promise, while "Too Close to the Screen," recorded for fanzine Trash Heap, might be quintessential: putting drum machines through distortion and effects boxes, Casio organ sounds, the voice setting on Korg Micro-preset synth…It sounds like bagpipes 'n 'drums funk drone, but always in service of a hand-crafted song. In other words, music to these ears.