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The Summer Of The Shark

The Summer Of The Shark
(Merge Records)

I'll admit that I've not been a follower of Portastatic for a long time. The extent of my knowledge of the group only goes back a couple albums, but having listened to them and their fairly recent Looking For Leonard Sountrack and Perfect Little Door EP with Ken Vandermark, I get the feeling that they're at least fairly consistent and occasionally write an amazing song that knocks my socks off. Mac McCaughan is the main fellow behind the group, and this release finds the group back in a more expansive state after the rather subdued cinematic and slightly jamming and almost jazzy output of the aforementioned releases.

The album opens with one of those winning tracks that I mentioned above in "Oh Come Down." Janet Weiss of Sleater Kinney adds vocals alongside McCaughan, and the plucked and hyper-pretty guitar part prances upward and downward nicely behind the two-part harmony while a solid but unobtrusive rhythm section chugs away. Like a slightly less orchestral version of a track that Jim O'Rourke might have recently done, it's a winner. After the stripped-down "In The Lines," "Windy Village" gets the rock on for the group, and despite a nice hook, it just doesn't work quite as well as the more subtle tracks on the release.

Like Yo La Tengo (who gets thanks in the liner notes and who have a song with the same name as this album title on their most recent release Summer Sun), one of the things about a Portastic release is that you're most likely going to get a lot of different styles of music. "Through A Rainy Lens" is a bass keyboard heavy instrumental while "Drill Me" is almost straight-up power-pop (replete with plenty of hand-claps and a boppy synth line) and "Paratrooper" is a stripped-down ballad, with only acoustic guitar, vocals by Mac, and a low heaving background swoosh and faint synths. "Hey Salty," from the Perfect Little Door EP makes another appearance here, with a slightly different arrangement and Vandermarks clarinet replaced by string synths.

If you've never heard Portastic before, you definitely have a lot of different albums you could start with, but this release probably provides one of the best overviews in terms of overall styles that the group is capable (and pulling off most of them). Even the tracks that don't quite work don't miss the mark by much, and while there's nothing too flashy going on within, the solid overall quality of the 12 tracks and 50 minutes of music is somewhat of a rarity. Like Yo La Tengo, Portastic puts out a lot of music, but fortunately for listeners, most of it is pretty darn good.

Rating: 7