October 08, 2003

Portastatic "Autumn Was a Lark"

I really wish more artists would release companion albums, especially if the album that's being companioned is excellent. Nothing is better than a second helping, and in some cases, a second round makes the first round even better. Earlier this year, Portastatic released Summer of The Shark, easily their best album. It certainly gives the gossips fodder about the future of Superchunk. On that same note, it certainly gives the world a good reason not to cry when the 'chunk comes to an end. Mac McCaugan has grown as a songwriter, and it doesn't matter which moniker he uses.

Autumn Was A Lark, then, serves as a nifty little bootleg partner for Summer of the Shark, highlighting the band's touring activity after the album's release. Though the album is being sold as a budget-line price normally reserved for EP's, Autumn Was A Lark is actually a full-length, and it's certainly worth every penny. As an album, it is divided into two sections; the first five songs are studio recordings, and the rest of the songs are all live recordings from radio broadcasts during the Summer of the Shark tour. (Okay, so 'NYC, Raining, 5am' is a found-sound answering machine recording, but it serves as a nice transition.)

The first five songs were originally going to be an EP release, much along the lines of Crooked Fingers' Reservoir Songs, in that it features live covers performed in the live set. To these covers, the band also added a new song and a full-band reworking of Summer of the Shark's "In The Lines." Not surprisingly, these five songs could have easily stood on their own. Kicking off with one of Mac's best songs ever, "Autumn Grew Dark," it effectively continues where Summer of the Shark left off: "So much for the summer of the shark/The autumn got dark so fast I know," sings McCaughan, as if to serve as a reminder that Summer of the Shark was, in essence, an album about 9/11. "Autumn Grew Dark" is a pretty hard rocker, too, but it's what comes up next that shows Mac's devotion to rock. The three cover songs--all from the early 1970s--are all excellent, and they make Autumn Was A Lark worth the admission. Badfinger's lost classic "Baby Blue" is a great update of a song that should be a standard, with country crooner Tift Merritt on backing vocals. (I guess Stephin was busy, Mac?) "Growin' Up," from Bruce Springsteen's debut album, is an interesting take on the Boss, especially considering the obvious differences in the two singers' voices, and "One More For the Road" is a pretty good bar-rocker from Ronnie Lane.

The rest of Autumn Was a Lark is excellent, though it's different. With acoustic recordings of three songs from Summer of the Shark ("Clay Cakes," "Don't Disappear," and "Drill Me") and a few classic Portastatic songs ("A Cunning Latch," "San Andreas," "You Know Where To Find Me," "Isn't That The Way"), Mac really brings a new dimension and wisdom to these slightly sad songs. He also offers another Springsteen cover, "Bobby Jean" from Born In the USA. This is Mac by himself, and he's just as tough by himself with a guitar as he is with a full band backing him.

Autumn Was A Lark is a fun little record; it certainly shows you just how talented Mr.Mac really is. Not that you really needed any convincing, you know, but it's nice to know there's more to him than being Mr. Superchunk. A fine collection for those of you who might have missed him on this tour. At the very least, with this and Reservoir Songs, we know that he and Eric Bachmann could just give it all up one day and form one helluva bar band.
While I have a strong feeling that will never happen, it's always good to have backup plans--and, from my point of view, those backup plans could be a winner, too.

--Joseph Kyle

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