PORTASTATIC: Slow notes from sinking ships...


Today I managed to hitch a ride with a friend to a grocery store (I have no means of transport just yet), and the poor bastard had to walk with me as I wandered the aisles in complete confusion. I felt bad as I realized that I had no shopping agenda whatsoever. I was just glad to be in a store, finally able to buy food that wasn't from a Quick Trip or the local Cubby's gas station down the street.

I realized tonight that I really have no "blog" agenda, either. Sure, I'll walk around with my headphones on some afternoon and think "Damn, I have to post this tonight." But most of the time, I'm coming up with this stuff about 20 seconds before typing it. If you hunt long enough through the stacks of records out there in the world, you'll find there's really an embarassment of riches, and not enough time in the day to enjoy them all.

So, I have to go on tangents. "Maybe I'll do a cover song post." Then a reader will mention something... a band or a theme idea, and I'll run with it. And that's why tonight I'm piggybacking that PORTASTATIC post from last night to tell you about my favorite album from said band, "SLOW NOTE FROM A SINKING SHIP."

If you rewind about a decade or so in my life, you go to a time when I'd heard a bit of Mac McCaughan's lo-fi band SUPERCHUNK. A friend of mine was really into the band, but I hadn't been fully swayed. I had the "FOOLISH" CD and liked a handful of songs on it, and always got a kick out of hearing their "Slack Motherfucker" single. I respected the guy for running one of my favorite indie labels, Merge Records. That same friend of mine was hoping to get an internship there after our Freshman year in college.

Near the end of that summer, I was shopping in the basement of Omaha's Antiquarium, a massive used book store/art gallery with a great indie record store and a comic book shop housed literally underground. I saw that Portastatic album in the New Releases section, and something about the artwork and the title piqued my curiosity. Say what you will about the ease of hearing things before you buy them on the Internet these days... there's just something really special about finding a great record by rolling the dice on a few choice words and pictures. Here are a few of my favorites from that album, and my apologies to Matt K. for not including the New Wave herky jerky brilliance of "A Cunning Latch." You guys will have to go buy that one yourselves. For now:

"San Andreas": This is the closest to a Superchunk song you're going to find on this record. Still, if this were a true Superchunk song, it would have to be played at double the speed it's played here.

"The Great Escape": I loved this song so much that I wrote an opening scene in a movie script around it. It was something Matt and I had been discussing at the time, a comedy about two friends who travelled around the country as con artist/thieves. They would get jobs at malls, slave away for 5 or 6 months (one would get a job in security, the other in a large department store or jewelry store) as they earned the trust of their coworkers and bosses, and then rob the places completely blind and fence a semi-truck's worth of merchandise before moving on to the next town. Their final heist was to take place in Omaha (their old hometown, of course), and this song heralded their arrival at the beginning of the movie. Sadly, Matt and I didn't get much further than mapping out the movie and creating one hell of a soundtrack that featured music from the Afghan Whigs, Archers of Loaf, Marvin Gaye and more.

"Taking You With Me": Okay, so maybe all of these songs could have graced a Superchunk record in another incarnation. And maybe I'm getting you into this record by using the most palatable material. Hey, do what you will. Go over to iTunes and check out "When You Crashed" or "You Can't Win." If you love old GBV, you might love "Skinny Glasses Girl." I can't give you the whole damned record, you know.

Before or since, I haven't gotten into another Portastatic record the way I got into this one. There are a handful of great songs on the "band's" debut, "I HOPE YOUR HEART IS NOT BRITTLE." Downloaders should hunt down "Gutter," "Silver Screw" (another Superchunk blueprint), or "Naked Pilsners." Or, get the "Pilsners" EP and enjoy Mac's cover of The Magnetic Fields' "Josephine." It's just as good as Superchunk's cover of the 'Fields' "100,000 Fireflies."

Gradually, Mac started getting more experimental with the Portastatic moniker, adding elements of jazz and Brazilian Tropicalia to later releases, for results that could be either brilliant or boring. While I don't fully love Portastatic's "THE NATURE OF SAP" album, it does contain a couple of fantastic songs in "Hurricane Warning (Ignored)" and the swinging "You Know Where to Find Me."

Mac has still maintained great taste in covers, as proven in his rendition of Caetano Veloso & Gal Costa's "Baby" from the "DE MEL, DE MELAO" EP. The original version is just a fucking soaring work of gorgeousness. If I had any mack daddy skills whatsoever, I could probably find my future wife by playing her this song. Download it right now... maybe you're her! This song is totally getting played at my wedding someday. Anyway, while I don't think Mac captures all that swooning lushness of the original, I really like how he recreates the string section with an echoey electric guitar. Plus, you get a little more of a taste of the lyrics in English ("Baby, you need to learn English." "I don't know, with me everything's all right.")

And hey, if nothing else, Mac gets props in my book for his work with Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard on their "Postal Service before there was a Postal Service" tape swapping exercise, GO BACK SNOWBALL. Mac played all instruments, and Pollard added lyrics/vocals from his own studio. The album's title track, "Calling Zero" is some of the best work either gentleman has done in years.


- Buy GO BACK SNOWBALL from the Merge Records site
- Hell, get yourself some Portastatic records while you're shopping.
- Snatch up some free MP3s from the Portastatic site, including three unreleased live tracks
- Haven't heard Superchunk? Visit their site for MP3s.
- Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso at AllMusic.com



thevitaminkid said...

The only version of "Baby" I've heard is Bebel Gilberto's, and it's very sweet. I'm very happy to get to sample the original, though. Nice of you to post this.

Thinking of Brazil, a person could do an entire blog entry on cover versions of Jobim's "Waters of March." Man, a lot of people have recorded that tune. Jobim's original remains my favorite, though Susanna McCorkle took a nice crack at it.

Dylan Gaughan said...

Nice, I'd love to hear that Gilberto track. Such a sexy voice.

I'm not too familiar with the Jobim track, either.

Anyone out there steeped in Brazilian music? Wanna trade mix CDs?

thevitaminkid said...

D, I will send the Bebel version to you. And Jobim's duet w/Elis Regina of Waters of March. That song was covered on Red, Hot & Rio by David Byrne and Marisa Monte dueting. Cibo Matto covered it, poorly. Cassandra Wilson. Al Jarreau. And on and on.

I wouldn't say I am steeped in Brazilian. I've got the Jobim box set, and being a fan of cool jazz of a certain era, those songs just get covered and covered.

Greg said...

Wow! Fantastic, generous post! I've been looking to sample more Portastatic. Many thanks! --Enchilada

dcrollins said...

Hey, Bob is back! Whatever happened to the GBV series?

Dylan Gaughan said...

I had to put the GBV thing on temporary hiatus, because my old roommate got custody of the 250 GB hard drive that all of our music was stored on when I moved out. I only have a small microcosm of that collection on my laptop, so I couldn't take all the GBV tracks with me.

Eventually, I'll get my own copy of that huge hard drive, but money is tight right now. It'll be back, I swear.

Roberto Iza Valdes said...
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Roberto Iza Valdes said...
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