Mac McCaughan seems to have reached that magical point in his career where a guy can just say the hell with it--his main bands, Superchunk and Portastatic, have pretty much topped out in popularity, and it sounds like he's decided to quit knocking his head on that ceiling and do whatever he feels like. For Portastatic's new album, Bright Ideas (Merge), he apparently felt like making rock music so incandescent that it'd all but obliterate my memories of the band's previous records. Bright Ideas backs away from the meandering, delicate feel of Portastatic's earlier stuff, opting instead for the visceral intensity of long-ago Superchunk, but at the same time it's McCaughan's most grown-up album yet. Made entirely in a proper studio, without the home recordings that supplement the other Portastatic discs, it sounds bright and sparkly--the occasional string part adds a classy shine to the familiar Marshall-stack power punch of McCaughan's guitar, and even the quiet tunes are big and open instead of bedroomy. These days McCaughan's lyrics are touched with adult cynicism as well as the hope and wonder of new fatherhood, but he's still hyper enough, if you'll pardon the phrase, to keep any of the darkness from feeling too heavy. McCaughan's been so consistent and prolific that I always expect good things from him, but it's truly amazing that after almost 20 years he can still make a record this vital.
After the Rock*a*Teens broke up in late 2000, their front man, Chris Lopez, took a few years off from music, working as a contractor and renovating a house he'd bought. Now he's back with Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells (Merge), the brand-new debut from his solo project, the Tenement Halls--and delightfully enough, it sounds just like one of his old band's early records. It's full of murky guitar and ploinky keys, everything's drenched in reverb, and Lopez is still a bit undone and vengeful, hollering like a drunken David Lowery in a pleading yawp colored with his Georgia accent. The record is his handiwork almost exclusively (Shannon Wright, his wife, plays electric piano on one track, and a couple drummers drop in), but live he brings along a two-man rhythm section and the Rock*a*Teens' old touring keyboardist, Jeffrey Wiggins.
Portastatic headlines, Mary Timony plays second, and the Tenement Halls open. Fri 9/9, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $10.