Mac McCaughan – Non-Believers (Merge)
Words you will never hear in the Durham, N.C., offices of Merge Records: “Oh crap, the boss wants us to put out another one of his own records.” The boss, in this case, is Mac McCaughan, who started Merge with his Superchunk bandmate Laura Ballance more than 25 years ago; that band was the label’s star attraction until the likes of Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel showed up. McCaughan also records under the name Portastatic, which started out as a bedroom solo project and slowly evolved into a band and an outlet for soundtrack work.
Why this man with 16 albums behind him has suddenly decided to start recording under his own name is anyone’s guess. But for such a prolific guy with almost as many misses as hits, Non-Believers is easily one of the finest records he’s ever made, with big melodies and tiny textural flourishes, practically perfect from start to finish. Might as well put your own name on it.
McCaughan made his name playing incredibly loud, overdriven punk guitar and singing slightly higher than his range would allow: here, he lets his lower range luxuriate, takes guitar inspiration from ’80s Brits like Johnny Marr and Robert Smith, and his overall aesthetic from New Zealand acts with whom he’s had a long love affair, like The Clean, the Tall Dwarfs and the 3Ds.
Closer to home, much of Non-Believers echoes East River Pipe, one of Merge Records’ most underrated artists: led by singer/songwriter F.M. Curnog, East River Pipe made the kind of low-key, homemade records you’d play during a melancholy drive around your old hometown, trying to find traces of the people and places you once knew and wondering how the hell the world has shifted beneath your feet.
Synths abound here, competing comfortably with the layers of guitars, never as an ironic gimmick or signifier. Usually rock musicians slap synths on top of something for mere effect or to substitute for something else; here, they’re as carefully arranged as a chamber orchestra.
Though there are obvious sonic touchstones, Non-Believers is stuck in neither a rut nor a groove: for every synth-drenched new wave song, there’s a power-pop rave-up like “Box Batteries” or a pseudo-country song like “Barely There.” Does it all just add up to record-collector rock for middle-aged ’90s indie kids who’ve tuned out the last few Yo La Tengo albums? On one level, absolutely. But it’s also the work of a man whose life immersed in music—indeed, a life spent midwifing some of the greatest North American records of the last 20 years—whose well is nowhere near dry, who’s not resting on his laurels, who still wants to make the best record of his career. This time, he might have done just that.
Download: “Only Do,” “Box Batteries,” “Lost Again”