Finally, there is Mac McCaughan, the living exception to every rule about rock music. Even by the inclusionary standards of college rock, McCaughan seemed misplaced when he started Superchunk in the late eighties. He looked half his age, sang with a squirrely little voice, and went to Columbia. A career in rock? Maybe in the accounting department. Instead, inspired by a lazy Kinkos employee, McCaughan wrote an irresistible screed called “Slack Motherfucker”—“Yeah, I’m working / But I’m not working for you / Slack motherfucker!”—and the major labels were all over him.
McCaughan somehow knew better than to go that route and started his own label, Merge Records, geared so that even a record selling a few thousand copies could make money for the artist and for the company. In the past sixteen years, Merge has put out great albums by the Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and the Arcade Fire, in addition to many wonderful bands you’ve never heard of. Superchunk also kept making records, each one better than the last, as McCaughan honed his punk-guitar riffing and fearless yelping. Plus, McCaughan recorded under the name Portastatic, his own R&D unit for songwriting, and—why not?—also launched a jazz label called Wobbly Rail.
Now Superchunk is on hiatus, as bassist (and Merge co-founder) Laura Ballance tends to her new baby. That puts Portastatic at the top of McCaughan’s priorities, and the result is the best record of his career, a collision of the idiosyncratic charms of Portastatic with the exuberant rock power of Superchunk. At 38, he still sings like a broken-voiced 13-year-old. But rather than disguise this limitation, he flaunts it. As he has since the heyday of college rock, McCaughan is testing himself, reaching for something a bit beyond where he’s been before. And for that, after all these years, I consider him the unsung king of rock.