Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mac Attack!

Artists: Bricks; Portastatic; Superchunk
Albums: A Microphone and a Box of Dirt (Bricks); I Hope Your Heart is not Brittle, Slow Note for a Sinking Ship, Hello Songs EP, The Nature of Sap, Looking for Leonard, The Perfect Little Door, The Summer of the Shark, Autumn Was a Lark, Bright Ideas, Ideas for Bright Ideas, Who Loves the Sun, Be Still Please, Some Small Things You Can't Defend (Portastatic); Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty, On the Mouth, Foolish, Incidental Music, Here's Where the Strings Come In, The Laughter Guns, Indoor Living, Come Pick Me Up, Hello Hawk EP, Here's to Shutting Up, Cup of Sand, Clambakes Vols. 1-3 (Superchunk)
Source: Bought new, except for Microphone/Box of Dirt, Superchunk and On the Mouth (bought used); and Leonard, Little Door, Summer/Shark, Autumn/Lark, Indoor, Come Pick and Shutting Up (promos)

Conventional wisdom says there is no way to define "art," but I think the wisdom-people are wrong. Art: The result of any creative act that allows a member of the audience to know that s/he is not alone in their experience of the world. See? That wasn't so hard.

Music is one of the most spot-on exemplars of that definition, and one of the reasons is that it is easy to discern an individual person (or people) in the musical act, so that non-alone feeling has a weird sort of social aspect. In other words, we hear a song or piece of music and know, just know, that it was written especially for us, that the musician knows us so well.

Mac McCaughan, who fronts all of Bricks, Portastatic and Superchunk, is one of those musicians that you can feel like you know, or are somehow magically known by. Referred to as just "Mac" by anyone who digs what he does, there is something about his music and/or persona and/or presence that engenders the connection. Blessed with talent and seemingly free of pretension, Mac makes pop/rock music that connects like art.

Being a Mac Fan is not a flash-in-the-pan experience; glance up at the list of my Mac-based holdings, and you'll see what I mean (there's an equally thick list of vinyl). Don't imagine that there aren't plenty more people out there with a similar pile o' Mac. Why? Because Mac does the one thing that entertainers aren't really supposed to do: he grows up at roughly the pace of a human being.

I always joke that when you go to a Superchunk show, it's easy to tell how old any given song is: see how much the band's hands have to move on their instruments. A couple of chords in an easy sequence? Early 'Chunk, no doubt (albums #1 and 2, plus the first several singles). Maybe a handful, plus some short runs on the fretboard in-between? That would be mid-period (roughly On the Mouth through Here's Where the Strings Come In). Complex arrangements, time-signature shifts, plus maybe some keyboard flourishes? Anything from Indoor Living onward. The Portastatic discs follow the same arc, with the work becoming more sophisticated and mature as the release dates roll forward. (He kicks ass live throughout.)

But it's not just the music. The overall mood, the lyrics, the stage show...all of it grows up. The comp of Bricks tracks is young and uncertain (1988-90); No Pocky for Kitty (1991) is full of over-excited challenges to the world; Summer of the Shark (2003) is an affecting meditation on two people searching for each other in the wake of 9/11 (a far better reckoning of the event than The Rising, from Mac's hero The Boss). Now that Mac is married and has kids, that specific brand of contentment and the new attendant avenues of doubt and wonder are all over the most recent Portastatic discs. It's not just that I feel like I know Mac; the music makes it seems like I can better understand my own forward momentum by listening to how he processes his.

If you'd asked me a decade ago if I'd continue to get excited by Mac's music for the rest of my life, I would have cocked an ear to the noisy rush of early Superchunk and had my doubts. But from the domesticated pop and refined rock to the instrumental movie scores and jazzy experiments, it seems that as long as I keep getting older, Mac will be making music that grows up alongside me.

SISOSIG? Mac's music (along with a lot of the stuff he puts out through the label he co-runs with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance, Merge) is some of my all-out favorite tunage. Some of these discs are more essential than others, and some have aged better or worse, but they're a body of work I can hear myself through. All of this stays, and there'll always be room in The Beast for whatever else Mac's got coming.

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