Portastatic, The Nature of Sap

Portastatic
The Nature of Sap
Merge

SUPERCHUNK FRONTMAN AND Merge label honcho Mac McCaughan tipped his hand about his goal for Portastatic early on with a cover of Brian Eno's "St. Elmo's Fire": His mostly-solo side project is a vehicle to make his own version of Another Green World (or at least Here Come the Warm Jets) on his basement eight-track, which is to say that the leader of indie punk-pop heroes Superchunk and the majordomo of Merge Records is at heart an art-rocker (surprise!).

Clarinet (courtesy of Lambchop's Jonathan Marx) and grand piano (ably played by McCaughan, who also tackles synthesizers, e-bowed guitar, vocals, and most of the other instruments) are the dominant sounds on Portastatic's third full-length effort, but this is no pseudo-classical avant-jazz minimalist post-rock wank-off. McCaughan displays the same unerring knack for hooks and inviting songcraft that he's always shown in Superchunk, only here he slows down the tempos, varies the instrumentation, and concerns himself more with the background (weird ambient soundscapes) than the foreground (verses, choruses, and such).

Whether it's evidence of the notoriously prolific McCaughan easing up a bit, or he simply scraped up enough money to indulge himself, The Nature of Sap benefits from an attention to detail somewhat lacking in earlier, lower-fi outings. As indicated by the title, he's not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the impressionistic lyrics of tunes such as "Flare" and "Landed" capture some pretty sappy (and melancholy) romantic moments. But the ornate musical backings perfectly match the moods he's trying to create. The album is at its most effective on the darker tunes, including "Hurricane Warning (Ignored)," in which McCaughan ties himself to some pilings and prepares to ride out the storm ("Warnings are for people with their eyes closed/You might as well put tape on all your windows/So you're scared of a little rain?"). As the layers of dark sounds swell behind him, you can almost feel the impending onslaught.

Combined with the recent recordings by the Elephant 6 Collective (Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples In Stereo) and the output of the always fabulous Flaming Lips, The Nature of Sap is a convincing argument that the Becks and DJ Shadows of the world aren't the only weirdos using the recording studio to full effect in the '90s. Hey, you don't have to have a sampler to make a great album--or great art-rock.

 
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