Essential New Music: Portastatic’s “Some Small History”

Indie icon, folk troubadour, pop medium. Mac McCaughan has assumed many musical guises for his Portastatic project, which has existed almost as long as Superchunk, that other band he fronts. There’s a telling photo of stacks of unmixed four-track cassettes, dating as far back as Christmas 1989, inside the two-CD Some Small History. Disc one of this best-of/outtakes compilation begins with Portastatic’s roughly produced first single, “Starter” (originally released by WFMU radio host and Monk scriptwriter Tom Scharpling). What follows isn’t in chronological order, but both discs present a strong argument that McCaughan has been hoarding some of his best work for Portastatic.

A 1994 seven-inch version of “San Andreas Crouch,” which later appeared on 1995’s Slow Note For A Sinking Ship, shows the sparse foundations for one of McCaughan’s best songs, and a 2003 full-band take of that album’s “Skinny Glasses Girl” improves on the original. Two discs may seem excessive, but moments like these keep Some Small History from growing stale. Bonus material: A variety of demos, acoustic versions and covers of songs by the Magnetic Fields, Hot Chip and Bob Dylan, among others. []

—Kory Grow