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Be Still Please
Merge Records

It only takes a few seconds for Portastatic's latest full-length, Be Still Please, to cast its spell. Mac McCaughan, the longtime frontman for seminal indie band Superchunk, founded Portastatic as a side project in the early 1990s, but the majestic orchestral introduction to "Sour Shores" dispels any thought that Be Still Please is a holdover between Superchunk albums. McCaughan's time-tested talents are on display throughout. With a voice that blends Sgt. Pepper's-era John Lennon and The Replacements' Paul Westerberg, he makes it seem natural for echoes of Elliott Smith, War's "Low Rider," and '80s arena rock to exist on a record that is both original and cohesive. McCaughan's songs are unified by expert production, and his versatile vocals transition seamlessly between lo-fi acoustic folk, orchestrated pop-rock, and up-tempo pop-punk.

Every track on Be Still Please, with the exception of the still-impressive "Cheers And Applause," makes a distinct and inspired statement. The aforementioned "Sour Shores" recalls the hazy orchestrations of The Flaming Lips, "Like A Pearl" is a minimalist dirge held together by spare acoustic guitar, and the wistful "Song For A Clock" brings the album to an inspiring close. McCaughan even expresses his affection for an American abstract painter from the early 1900s with the straight-ahead rock of "I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)." All of these divergent ideas, packed into a brief nine-song running time, are held together by McCaughan's effortless vocals, precise arrangements and production, and veteran performances by his band. McCaughan is also an adept lyricist, at times scathing and at times reflective. On "Like A Pearl," he makes thinly-veiled reference to current events: "This is every dime you made in a war you sold for cash / This is every awkward teenage boy never coming back." On "Song For A Clock," a meditation on beauty and passing time, that bitterness is gone: "Last night we just fell into bed / and let the poison drain out of our head / Before the sun stripes shade across the back of your bare legs, we'll be sleeping / heavy with love instead."

While Be Still Please is a remarkable showcase for McCaughan's freewheeling talents, it falls short of greatness. The pitch-perfect arrangements and vocals sometimes lack the urgency and passion so important to timeless music, and McCaughan has a troubling tendency to sound disengaged from his own songs. This doesn't affect straight-ahead rockers like "I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)" and the embittered "You Blanks," but quieter tracks like "Black Buttons" and "Sweetness And Light" don't fare as well. It's true that McCaughan's nonchalant, chameleon-like vocals are vital to his deft transitions between musical styles, but the approach can result in well-constructed, well-executed songs that lack the vitality to match their quality. When Elliott Smith sang about his pain, even at his most restrained there was unmistakable emotion in his voice. At times, both McCaughan's vocals and the band's performances on Be Still Please feel detached from the power of the lyrics.

Despite any flaws, however, Be Still Please remains a tremendously accomplished record that stands toe-to-toe with the best work of most younger artists. For a veteran songwriter to be making records this inspired after nearly twenty years is truly a rarity, and the album is engaging from start to finish. And, if the band is able to record with the enthusiasm that parts of the record lack, the band's next album could be the masterpiece that Be Still Please might have been.

-Dan Warren

Track Listing:
1. Sour Shores
2. Black Buttons
3. I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)
4. Sweetness And Light
5. Getting Saved
6. You Blanks
7. Like A Pearl
8. Cheers And Applause
9. Song For A Clock

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