Portastatic: Bright Ideas, John Vanderslice: Pixel Revolt

Bright Ideas

John Vanderslice
Pixel Revolt


Mac McCaughan meant it when he titled an old Superchunk anthem "Slack Motherfucker." Here was the T-shirted man-child who taught the indie nation to buck against parents and teachers and punctilious Kinko's night managers, tempting reprimand by stuffing envelopes with his indie label's latest seven-inch. But McCaughan also meant it when he called an album by his semi-solo project Portastatic The Nature of Sap. Dude defines the middle ground between extended adolescence and touchy-feely maturity. For the last few Superchunk albums, that's meant hard-edged guitar parts embroidered with tasteful string charts. And so it does on Bright Ideas, the fifth Portastatic full-length. The title track coasts on mellow acoustic-guitar strums, "Little Fern" sports a roots-rock bounce, and the violin-laced "Truckstop Cassettes" indulges McCaughan's dabbling in breezy Brazilian pop.

Yet the album's tilt toward adulthood goes beyond flashy studio foofaraw. "I wanna know girls," McCaughan sings in a song of the same name, "but love only one/You are my source of energy/Hook a panel up to me." So he's moving beyond the aimless hookups the song suggests used to pepper his touring life--Dr. Phil would be proud. Only McCaughan doesn't do the tune in the hushed alt-folk mode of, say, Iron and Wine; "I Wanna Know Girls" is bright power-pop, perhaps the brightest on Bright Ideas, which gives McCaughan's lyric (goofy as it is) a thrust rooted in assertion, not reaction. The song rings with newfound authority.

McCaughan recorded Ideas at Tiny Telephone, a San Francisco studio owned by John Vanderslice, another entrepreneurial singer-songwriter eager to transcend his indie-scene roots. Vanderslice's thing isn't emotional development, though; it's exchanging the first-person focus for storytelling flair. On 2004's Cellar Door, he sang from the perspective of a prison guard at Guantánamo; in Pixel Revolt's "Plymouth Rock" he embodies a Native American at the titular landmark. "My first raid, made up like a Shawnee brave," he sings over a snare-drum flutter, "I even had my head shaved." As a war correspondent in "Trance Manual" he walks through the "mujahideen barricades...past the bullhorns and sleepy 47s." Vanderslice being an engineer, flashy studio foofaraw is how these little vignettes get over. A sparkly keyboard figure represents the ring of his cell phone as he watches "the second plane hit...live on a hotel TV" in "Exodus Damage." In "New Zealand Pines" he shrouds a walk through Golden Gate Park in a thick pump-organ fog. Authority can wait; he's got special effects.

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