Monday, November 30, 2009

Nov 09 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in November.

Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be? (Warner)

It’s an old trope to complain about an artist becoming less interesting with a major label leap. And yet in the case of Devendra Banhart—whose sixth album is his first for Warner—he now sounds creatively bankrupt and downright bored.

Banhart is a restless creative soul, whose toss-offs were always at least interesting. He consistently been inconsistent, either falling flat on his face with ridiculous lyrics and goofy hippie-isms, or—as he did on his last album—successfully jumping from Brazilian bossa nova to gospel-infused classic rock jams to doo-wop to reggae to psychedelic folk—all glued together with his wonderfully elastic voice.

Trace elements of those things are heard here, but it sounds like someone put Banhart on meds and inhibited his wilder urges; everything lopes along in a heroin haze, without any of the fantastical imagery or intoxicating melodies that Banhart used to excel at.

“I know I look high, but I’m just free dancing,” he sings, on one of this album’s otherwise passable songs. But rather than sounding unselfconscious, Banhart sounds like he’s being monitored closely in case he waves his freak folk flag too high. (K-W Record, November 12)

Bell Orchestre – Who Designs Nature’s How (Arts and Crafts)
Score! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Remixes – Various Artists (Merge)

Merge Records celebrated its 20th anniversary with a week-long festival, an oral history book, a subscription series of specially curated compilations, and a disc of cover versions, now caps off its year by surrendering the master tapes of some of its best-loved artists to remixers.

This fares better than the patchy covers comp released in the spring—after all, how badly can you miss the mark when you’re dealing with the original tracks? In some cases here they improve remarkably on the originals: Caribou remixing Polvo, +/- juicing up the Rosebuds, and Four Tet turning the naivete of Guv’ner into a techno chant. John McEntire takes one of the only weak moments from the last 10 years of Spoon’s discography, “The Ghost of You Lingers,” and replaces the insistent piano plunking with a lilting ambient techno breeze.

Others are far more faithful, or attempt to unnecessarily insert their vocals. The only serious disappointment—if only because of the lost potential—is Jason Forrest’s remix of Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go.” It’s nowhere near as daring as his own work nor the possibilities buried in the dense mix of the original; it also doesn’t help that an early cover of this song by Canadian electronic band Vitamins for You already cast it in a more synth-y arrangement similar to that heard in the first half of this remix; meanwhile, the second half is Forrest’s remix is almost indistinguishable from the original.

Though it’s billed as a remix album, Bell Orchestre’s Who Designs Nature’s How seems more like a compilation of their favourite artists than reconfigurations of the rich source material heard on their 2009 masterpiece As Seen Through Windows.

Therefore Montreal sound sculptor Tim Hecker offers a piece that could well have been culled from his most recent album, An Imaginary Country; likewise, saxophonist Colin Stetson—who joined the band last year—delivers a solo saxophone performance that is as rhythmically repetitive, enchanting and muscular as his normal solo material … which it may well be, as the title of his track doesn’t resemble any Bell Orchestre composition.

U.K. dub master Mad Professor stretches out the title track with hazy textures and electronic effects, although remains largely faithful to the original song’s structure; Montreal’s veteran turntablist Kid Koala and new duo Deadly Stare (one half of which engineered Amon Tobin’s Foley Room, which had contributions from Bell Orchestre members) fare better toying with trace elements of two of Windows’ stronger tracks.

No one touches the original album’s astounding triumph, the track “Elephants”—because why mess with perfection? (K-W Record, November 19)

Blue Rodeo – The Things We Left Behind (Warner)

It’s high time Blue Rodeo kicked its own ass.

While they’ve never suffered as a live band, their studio output of at least the last 10 years has been less than inspiring. On this double album, however, the difference is both cosmetic and concrete: the production is warm, hazy and old school; strings, flutes and tympani make appearances on some of Greg Keelor’s trippier numbers. But more importantly, both Keelor and Jim Cuddy step back up as songwriters worthy of their Hall of Fame status.

Keelor showed considerable strength on his 2006 solo album Aphrodite Rose, so it’s Cuddy who is the surprise here. It can be argued that every ballad he’s ever written is entirely interchangeable, but that certainly can’t be said of this album’s “One Light Left in Heaven”—despite the slightly maudlin title, it’s one of Cuddy’s finest accomplishments in his 25 years as a songwriter. His rockers are no small shakes either; tracks like “One More Night” and “Arizona Dust” show off some swagger.

Though Keelor and Cuddy split the album’s 16 songs evenly, Keelor eats up more running time with long, expansive tracks; “Million Miles” draws on raga rock and the folkier side of Led Zeppelin, while the 10-minute “Venus Rising” is the album’s lone stinker. Both discs open with two of Keelor’s best brooders—the kind that sound like Neil Young produced by the Beatles—where the band’s vocal and instrumental arranging skills come into clear focus.

In between are plenty of songs that do what Blue Rodeo have always done best, and there’s little here that really rocks the boat. But after years of conceding their crown to bands like the Sadies and Cuff the Duke, it sounds like they’re ready to fight for it back. (K-W Record, November 12)

Dead Man’s Bones – s/t (Anti)

The official holiday is over, but every day is Halloween for Dead Man’s Bones. Every song on their debut album sounds like it was recorded in a haunted house, with ghoulish lead vocals, sparse guitars, primitive percussion, and a choir of ghostly children lurking in the background of almost every track. Much of the music is fragile and falling apart, which suits the rickety ride perfectly: if this was the least bit slick, it wouldn’t work at all.

Dead Man’s Bones is the duo of Zach Shields and Ryan Gosling, who play everything on the album whether they know how to or not, which adds an innocent amateurism to the atmosphere. Dead Man’s Bones revel in the naivete of ’50s rock’n’roll and ’90s lo-fi indie rock, with the children’s choir and cartoonish fright-night lyrics (“Werewolf Heart,” “My Body’s a Zombie For You”) adding a suitably bizarre element.

This is the kind of project that mainstream celebrity mags mock as a Hollywood actor (Gosling) slumming as a musician, but it’s unique and strange and beautifully broken in ways that exist outside any proper conceptions of pop culture. And as a weirdo art project that exists in its own world, it works wonderfully well. (K-W Record, November 5)

Fool’s Gold – s/t (Iamsound)

The name may be emblematic of the ersatz nature of this band, but Fool’s Gold doesn’t joke around. Ethiopian melodies, West African rhythms, and lyrics sung in Hebrew all melt together when played by a bunch of Los Angelenos whose only direct link to their influences is the fact that vocalist and bassist Luke Topp was born in Israel, hence the Hebrew. Otherwise everyone comes to the music as an outsider—not that you’d ever know, and not that you should care.

Guitarist Lewis Pesacov excels at clean highlife rhythms, dirty Malian blues, and fading into the background amidst the heavy percussion. He and his bandmates imitate existing African styles with excellence, but how they assemble them is entirely unorthodox. They’re not out to fit everything into a North American context—the way Vampire Weekend marries township jive with Velvet Underground/Violent Femmes innocence—and nor are they trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not. The choral refrain on “The World Is All There Is” could just as well be Aboriginal North American, African, or the Arcade Fire. The syncopated, swaying waltz of “Nadine” is otherworldly unto itself, with or without any specific cultural reference point.

Purists should stay away; everyone else should jump right in. (K-W Record, November 26)

Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport (All Tomorrow’s Parties)

Even at its loudest and most intense, ’90s rave was too pretty, too pristine and not perverse enough to live up to its subversive reputation. That’s where Fuck Buttons come in, using white noise and distorted electronics to create nonetheless beautiful textures and slow-moving, cinematic melodies, set to chopped-up techno beats that certainly don’t guarantee a spot on the dance floor. Even when all hell breaks loose on a completely disorienting track like "Phantom Limb," a majestic mood still prevails.

Part of the credit can go to noted ’90s producer Andrew Weatherall (Two Lone Swordsmen, Sabres of Paradise), who helps beef up the Buttons’ sound considerably. “Olympians” sounds like it could be the theme for a 22nd century Chariots of Fire; closing track “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” breaks down in the middle of its 10-minute stretch into an extended African drum break before the eerie, Moby-meets-Morricone melody creeps back in.

Taken as a whole, however, Tarot Sports can be draining; this is a band best absorbed one epic track at a time. (K-W Record, November 26)

Bebel Gilberto – All in One (Verve)

Bebel Gilberto has erred on the safe side of bossa nova ever since her international debut, 2000’s Tanto Tempo, an album that found her working with interesting beatmakers and electronic musicians. All in One is the first album since to return to that experimentalism, although the slightly more abstract numbers are side by side with very middle-of-the-road, easy-listening route Gilberto has been most comfortable in. The laid back, velvety vocalist allows herself to surrender to groove on tracks like Carmen Miranda’s “Chica Chica Boom Chic,” a cover of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” (produced by Dust Brother John King), and Stevie Wonder’s “The Real Thing,” where she’s backed up by the Dap-Kings. She’s suitably seductive on the sleepy ballads, which stand out when juxtaposed with the meatier tracks. All in One contains the best of what Gilberto can do, although one senses she could still push any one of these directions even further. (K-W Record, November 26)

Norah Jones – The Fall (Blue Note/EMI)

After over 50 albums in the last 30 years, The Fall can always be expected to reinvent themselves, and what better way than to title their new album Norah Jones. Oh wait, the Norah Jones album is called The Fall? Either way, surprises are still afoot.

No matter how huge her earlier successes were, The Fall may just as well be Norah Jones’s first real album. She’s no longer covering standards, her reliance on co-writers has lessened, and she’s left behind explicit nods to the jazz and country music that was such a formative influence; The Fall draws on the likes of Joe Henry, Tom Waits, and the Shins instead. Most importantly, she sounds like she’s developing her own personality—instead of simply making decent music that was easy to ignore. And as always, she melts genre barriers with her velvety voice.

With the help of producer and engineer Jacquire King—whose diverse resumé includes work with Tom Waits, Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon—Jones crafts an atypical backdrop for her languorous voice, one full of rumbling bass, eerie background sounds, and distorted Wurlitzer pianos. There is also far more guitar than can usually be found on a Norah Jones album—much of it she plays herself, occasionally calling in ringers like Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel to paint with more abstract colours.

Thankfully, the makeover suits her well. And judging by the lyrical content, which is steeped in heartbreak and loss, it sounds like she needed at least a change of sonic scenery. Jones doesn’t wallow in her personal loss, and despite the prevailing melancholy mood, The Fall is not a dark record—instead, it’s colourful and alive with detail. Because Jones has always been a bit of a blank canvas as vocalist, even the most desolate lyric here is rich with empathy and reassurance.

It’s obviously her most personal album, it also wound up being her best. The Fall makes her earlier commercial breakthroughs seem like child’s play; hopefully, this marks the arrival of the real artist. (K-W Record, November 19)

Lyle Lovett – Natural Forces (Universal)

After 23 years of heartbreaking country balladry and rollicking Western swing, Lyle Lovett is ready to rock’n’roll.

At least, that’s what we hear on the closing track of his new album, suitably titled “It’s Rock’n’Roll,” with a finger-tapping guitar riff, big power chords and a boogie-woogie rhythm underneath. Lovett’s trademark deadpan dry delivery suits the material perfectly, and the song itself manages to be much more than just the campy send-up it could have been.

Sadly, that’s the most animated Lovett manages to be on the whole of Natural Forces, which is the latest in a series of merely average albums from this once-great artist; only 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate has managed to break that curse in the last 15 years. His wit, his narrative storytelling, and his sardonic eye for detail all seem to have evaporated; without those, Lovett is still a decent songwriter, but nowhere near the unique, captivating figure he once was.

Perhaps it’s unfair to saddle him with the weight of his past, but when he set the bar so high, so many times, it’s near impossible not to. (K-W Record, November 5)

Pick a Piper – EP (independent)

Brad Weber has been touring the world for the last several years as a drummer with Dundas, Ontario’s Caribou. He is ostensibly the drummer in that band, but many Caribou tracks end up with every musician on stage hammering on a drum kit of their own. It sounds like Weber carries some of that aesthetic over to his new project, Pick a Piper, which is just as equally percussive and melodic, although considerably less intense than the multi-layered density that Caribou aims for. Weber likes to keep things sparse, whether he’s tapping ’60s psychedelia, ’90s lo-fi bedroom rock, or channelling a drum circle to interpret abstract electronica. Whatever the hell it is he’s up to, this is an incredibly promising beginning, and likely a rousing live show as well. (K-W Record, November 26)

Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend (Acony)

It’s a perfect album title for a sideman stepping into the spotlight. Rawlings has written and performed with Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes and Robyn Hitchcock, but is best known as the long-time right-hand-man for Gillian Welch. She’s right by his side here, playing, singing and co-writing on this, his first solo album.

Fans of Welch won’t find anything drastically different here, although Rawlings is very much his own songwriter and less likely to sink into a lethargic lull, as even Welch’s finest albums tend to do. “It’s too easy to feel good,” he sings, over a driving fiddle and upright bass, and for the most part he keeps matters spirited. The exception is a brooding, unnecessary medley of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” which share similar chords but couldn’t be further apart lyrically.

Highlights include a resurrection of his co-write “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, To Be High),” first heard on Ryan Adams’s debut solo album, and the gorgeous closing number “Bells of Harlem,” which could well go on to be a standard.

Along with Buddy and Julie Miller’s excellent Written in Chalk, 2009 has been a good year for the sidemen to step forward. (K-W Record, November 19)

Rupa and the April Fishes – Este Mundo (Cumbancha)

There’s something about this San Francisco band that’s too good to be true for public radio programmers or folk festival bookers: steeped in Parisian hot jazz and reggae, riddled with accordions, trombones, dumbeks and violins, and sung in French and Spanish, the music of Rupa and the April Fishes seems devised to push all the correct “world music” buttons for the café set. Yet they’re exceptionally good at it; bandleader and singer Rupa Marya strikes the right chord between torch song tragedy and hopeful optimism, while her lively band excel at delicate and spritely arrangements that may be musically nomadic, but don’t sound the least bit restless. This is a band who sound right at home in any corner of the world. (K-W Record, November 12)

John Southworth – MamaTevatron (Dead Daisy)

Despite being a huge fan of his first two albums, both released about a decade ago (1998’s Mars, Pennyslvania and 1999’s Sedona, Arizona), I have to confess to having missed almost everything John Southworth has been up to since. I lost track around the time he was reinventing his old songs for a bluegrass band and performing in whiteface; his newer material at the time suggested that the terminal romantic was surrendering to not-so-clever wordplay in place of real emotion.

So having no idea what’s transpired since—other than some co-writing with old chum Hawksley Workman, and having songs covered by Sarah Slean and Jully Black—it’s a joy to hear Southworth in top form on MamaTevatron.

He’s back behind the keyboards—no guitars allowed here—with a distorted Rhodes driving most of the material by pounding out steady eighth notes, while his droll tenor spins sweet and sour and silly tales. Southworth’s sound is still impossible to pin down, other than to say it borrows from various eras from English music hall to ’80s new wave, with a bit of many a pop oddball from history in the mix—including even Prince’s paisley period. “Buffalo City Hall,” “Trust the Voice of Love,” and “I Get It Now” are some of the finest pop songs of the year, and even the weakest tracks here are incredibly catchy and clever.

On the closing track, “Zulou,” he enters enchanted territory, and even if the lyrics about “19th century dwarves” and holding “your egg and spoon as you walk across the moon” seem ridiculous, Southworth’s unexpected delivery pulls it off with aplomb.

Clearly, it’s time to start paying attention again. (K-W Record, November 12)

Joss Stone – Colour Me Free (EMI)

At a ripe old 22, Joss Stone has four albums under her belt, but Colour Me Free is the first time she sounds in full control of her awesome vocal power: she’s not stretching to prove herself and nor is she trying to contain herself into a box. The title sounds like a cliché, but she does sound free here; even when the material is frequently lightweight, Stone owns this material, having matured into the kind of gospel/blues/soul singer that brings class and finesse to anything she touches. When she matches that with a strong original—which she does several times here (“Could’ve Been You,” the Stevie Wonder-ish “Parallel Lines”)—she’s unstoppable.

But if her vocal chops have always been there—emboldened now with years of valuable experience—the success of Colour Me Free is due just as much to her backing band, her collaborators and—most of all—her producers, who craft a sumptuous, swampy sound that gives Stone plenty of space to fill with her voice. The well-arranged, gospel-infused backing vocals sound like a real live trio of women singing in a room, not just clones of the lead; the pianos plink and the organs swirl around the sparse rhythm section; the strings are never syrupy. The cumulative effect goes for that late-’70s New York City soul sound that Alicia Keys frequently aims for but never quite gets. A guest appearance by Nas, on the politically lightweight “Governmentalist,” lends further weight to the album’s funkiest track.

For all its strengths, Stone isn’t quite at the stage where she can get away with a track called “Mr. Wanker Man” (it’s as bad as it sounds); the cover art is equally atrocious. Otherwise, this is the Stone we’ve been waiting for. (K-W Record, November 5)

Them Crooked Vultures – s/t (Universal)

The first thing you hear from this supergroup is a song titled “No One Loves Me, Neither Do I.”

After hearing the rest of the disappointing debut album by Them Crooked Vultures—a band featuring Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl—the self-flagellating song title seems like less of a joke.

How could this possibly fail? Perhaps it has everything to do with singer Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, because no matter how good a band’s rhythm section is, their fate ultimately rests on their singer and songwriter. And instead of rising to the challenge in the presence of greatness, Homme sounds asleep at the wheel, like he’s trudging his way through Alice in Chains b-sides.

There are times when Grohl and Jones break a real sweat (“Reptiles,” “Elephants,” or the Cream-like “Scumbag Blues”), but even if you block Homme from the mix, this is still nowhere near as monstrous as it should be.

Them Crooked Vultures is an incredibly wasted opportunity. One wonders why they didn’t call Jack White—he’s always good for whipping together a side project on a moment’s notice. Too bad he was busy stealing another Queen of the Stone Age (guitarist Dean Fertita) for the debut of his far superior 2009 band The Dead Weather. (K-W Record, November 26)

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Neon Rome

Being a wee bit of a geezer, I’ve seen plenty of reunion shows. Almost all of them have been disappointing to some degree. Part of that is the inevitable diminishing of the initial spark; part of that is unreasonable expectations of the present compared to the idealized memories of the past.

So perhaps it helps that I had no expectations of A Neon Rome, Toronto legends who broke up 22 years ago. I’d never seen them before. I don’t even like their one album, 1987’s New Heroin, very much at all.

I know them only on reputation, and because they were the real life inspiration for the Bruce McDonald movie Roadkill; like the lead singer of the film’s Children of Paradise, A Neon Rome frontman Neil Arbick took a vow of silence and left a life of rock’n’roll shortly after, shocking many local observers who thought he was the best performer in the city.

Seeing him earlier tonight at the Dakota, all of this makes sense. Years of yogic living have left him svelte and with a kind and gentle face—which makes it all the more alarming when he hurls the microphone around the stage, throws himself in the drum kit repeatedly, and writhes on the floor unleashing bloodcurdling screams. The man clearly has a lot of pain and has come out the other side, but can access the anguish in his subconscious in an instant.

It’s a tired cliché to refer to a rock frontman’s “shamanic” attributes, but no better adjective exists to describe Arbick’s wild abandon on stage. He can whip a microphone with more precision than Roger Daltrey in his prime, but every other one of his moves resists rote rock moves and surrenders to the swirling intensity of the band behind him.

And what a band: guitarist Kevin Nizel not only hasn’t aged physically—much like the rest of this remarkably well-preserved band—but he’s still full of swagger, with his hips cocked and guitar held out in front of him, facing the audience, feedback constantly coaxed from the amp next to the monitor.

John Borra, who has been fronting country acts for at least 10 years now, brought back his dextrous bass playing, egged on incessantly by the undeniable force of guest drummer Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo, Holy Fuck); both of them played in Change of Heart at one point, but not together.

A Neon Rome’s Bernard Maiezza was Change of Heart’s keyboardist from beginning to end; his textures were much more audible tonight than they were at the CoH reunion in June. (Finally, Change of Heart/C’mon’s Ian Blurton was the original A Neon Rome drummer, heard on New Heroin; tonight, he was content to watch from the back of the bar.) I don’t recall the second guitarist’s name; he’s not featured on New Heroin (Crawford Teasdale?).

The trance-like elements that gained A Neon Rome their rep were never really apparent on the album—at least to me, who was in Grade 11 when they broke up. Seeing them live now, however, it was impossible not to get completely immersed in the rapture at full volume, especially with Arbick conducting and contorting.

Yes, A Neon Rome is druggy music—but it’s the kind of music that, because it exists, makes taking drugs entirely unnecessary. I can’t imagine seeing this band while high; it would be fucking terrifying.

It’s easy to see why, in his heyday, people thought Arbick was equal parts Peter Murphy, Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison; he has as much charisma as any of those dudes. Do they make frontmen like this anymore? Even when his lyrics might not stand up in the light of day—as on the Velvet-y encore song, “Human Beings” (what was to be the single from their never-released second album)—Arbick is capable of carrying you wherever he wants to take you.

It was my first ride, but the audience could well have been culled from the Beverley Tavern in 1986. The audience skewed exclusively 45-50, with only the odd whippersnapper (or progeny, in one case) thrown in there. Members of Blue Rodeo, Handsome Ned’s band, Groovy Religion, Broken Social Scene, and many vaguely familiar faces were evident; it was a reunion of sorts for many former scenesters, as they caught up on who was still single, who had settled, who was still making music.

The gig was to celebrate the CD release of New Heroin (also available on iTunes); it was apparently the fourth reunion since the initial, acrimonious breakup (the first was a 1993 show at an Exclaim! party). That admission lessened the once-in-a-lifetime sense of excitement I had walking in, but it didn’t diminish the fact that this was still a rare, beautiful and wild experience.

And thankfully, unlike in the movie, the manager didn't show up to shoot anyone on stage.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records

If only my own high school yearbook was this colourful and entertaining.

At the Merge Records’ 20th anniversary celebrations this past summer, the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson was constantly spotted in the Cat’s Cradle clutching her hot-off-the-press copy of Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and getting all of her peers to sign it for her, like she had just shown up to her high school reunion. One of the label’s biggest “stars” was clearly also one of its biggest fans—though the same could be said of any Merge artist, all of whom are drawn to the label for its artistic pedigree, reputation for integrity and practicality.

Our Noise
is an oral history of the label’s two-decade ascent from a makeshift DIY operation that documented the local scene in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, North Carolina, into one of the most respected indie labels in the U.S., with several acknowledged classic albums in its catalogue and artists that sell hundreds of thousands of records.

At first glance, it appears to be assembled for fans, first and foremost: it’s visually rich, full of intimate photos and ephemera from ’90s indie rock era, and the level of trainspotting geekery can be a bit much when discussing the incestuous scene that birthed the label’s flagship band, Superchunk.

Yet as the book progresses, the story of Merge is a tale of not just luck and perseverance—although those are two large factors—but of a stubborn resilience to resist the ’90s “alternative rock” boom and all the accompanying false formulas for success. Said boom was no more than a bubble, and Merge’s most successful artists are those who were either a) burned by the buy-out of underground culture, and spat out by the major label system, or b) suspicious of the whole scam to begin with, or c) oblivious to it all in the first place.

And so the story of Merge is the story of a little label that could, but it’s also about the madness of the “alternative rock” glut and false promises made. It’s about cultivated, eclectic taste triumphing over cookie-cutting. It’s about the evolution of the indie industry from cut-and-paste word-of-mouth to instant buzz and media hype—and yet the value of personal relationships remains the most important link between any artist and their label.

Although it is certainly fawning, Our Noise is also an honest book. It deals frankly and openly with two key break-ups in the label’s history: the romantic one between co-owners Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance (who are credited as co-authors), and that between Merge and their mentor label—and distributor—Touch and Go, in the wake of Arcade Fire’s success.

In this conversation, former Chicago Tribune reporter John Cook talks about the process of assembling the book, the legacy of Merge Records, and the ubiquity of the phrase “this was before the Internet.”

John Cook

November 3, 2009

Phone interview from his New York City home

I’ve read a lot of interviews with Mac and Laura, and precious few with you.

Who wants to talk to me when they can talk to Mac and Laura?

I’ve talked to them before, but I’ve never talked to you. Have you felt like the silent third partner in this so far?

I’ve done a few interviews, but I do think that they’re the people who have accomplished something interesting and amazing and are the folks with a tale to tell. I’d rather read an interview with them than an interview with me.

But that’s why we have your book. And why I’m talking to you.

The book was supposed to be by Mac and Laura with John Cook, and they actually changed their mind late in the game and decided that because I did the writing and the work that they wanted my name to be first. We got into an argument about it, with me saying, who wants to read a book by John Cook? I think their attitude is that the person who did the work should get the credit. Although they did do a lot of work.

That’s amazing, because they come off as such pricks in print that I didn’t think they’d be that generous. [note: sarcasm]

(laughs) We had to work really hard to massage the image. You should see what got nixed.

So the initial concept was that you would be a ghostwriter of sorts? How did this begin?

My first contact with them was in 2003 when I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. I’d been a lifelong Superchunk fan since I first saw them in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994, when I was in college. I was the kind of guy who owns everything they’ve ever done, a completist. Through that process, I became a fan of the other Merge bands as well.

In 2002, Summer of the Shark by Portastatic [Mac McCaughan's solo project] came out, which I thought was a really amazing record. I thought it was an interesting story how to respond to tragedy and process those emotions musically. The big post-9/11 record at that point was Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, and a Steve Earle record with “John Walker Lindh’s Blues” on it. I thought both of those records sucked horribly, and that Summer of the Shark was a wonderful accomplishment, without any bombast. I did a story about that, comparing and assessing those records, and that was the first time I’d ever spoken to Mac.

A year later, when the next Portastatic record came out [Bright Ideas], he asked me to write the press bio. I was very excited and nervous about that. [Later on, a literary agent and mutual friend asked Mac and Laura to write a book about Merge; they didn’t want to do it themselves, and the agent recommended Cook.]

The initial concept was that it would a memoir-ish narrative about the story of Merge. When I flew down to North Carolina to talk to them about it, it became clear that wasn’t possible, because there was no “we.” It’s Mac and it’s Laura and they have very different voices; the contrast and tension between their voices and their personalities is one of the engines of Merge Records. You’d be doing them a disservice to collapse them into one voice.

I can’t think of any other book that’s written in first person plural. But why not a distant third person narrative, like every other book?

That would have been what I had done if I was writing the book about them. But they were on the author side of the ledger. It’s a much more direct, intimate and immediate feeling to do an oral history. As I was coming up with the first chapter, it wasn’t even immediately clear what format it would take. As we tried that out, we all became very comfortable with the idea of everyone speaking for themselves, and having clashing memories and ideas.

It makes it more colourful and at times controversial, like the guy who wonders why Superchunk didn’t just kick the chick bass player out of the band when she and the lead singer split up. Or the other two members of Superchunk saying they thought [Neutral Milk Hotel's] In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was a terrible record at the time, or that [Magnetic Fields'] 69 Love Songs was a really stupid idea.

Those are funny moments, so it works well to have those thoughts in there.

What you think the role of oral history is in music books now? With books like these, I wonder if there are many mass-market music books anymore, and if you might as well just cater to the niche fans and give them something very visual and detailed and speak directly to them as opposed to explaining everything to a general audience.

It was a conscious effort on our part to make it about more than just Merge. We didn’t want to do a fan book. We wanted to find a way for it to appeal to people who might not care about the music so much, but who are invested in the idea of independent culture.
My initial pitch to them was that the story of Merge Records is the counter-narrative to the story of the music business over that period of time, and the story of the collapse of the major labels. We tried to have that perspective in there, and to throw into relief the importance of what Mac and Laura have accomplished. We hoped this would interest people who are interested in art and how to produce it in a commercial environment. And you also just want to tell a good story, and take whatever facts you have at your disposal and fashion them into a yarn.

I don’t know how successful we were, but that was the hope. I wanted my dad to be able to read it and understand why it’s important. We tried to find stories that had larger relevance rather than personal histories.

There is certainly a lot of insider scene stuff, particularly in the early years, which is very specific to Carrboro and Chapel Hill. But as the book broadens, there is every possible narrative of the music industry in the ’90s—with the exception of the people who did have a good major label experience.

There are the people who signed horrible deals and found later refuge in Merge (Spoon); the story of Superchunk opening up a tour for a band with a big radio hit (Belly); the basement guy with some aspirations (Matt Suggs); the band like Lambchop who are surprised anything happens at all; the band like Neutral Milk Hotel that choose to retreat rather than engage at any level of success, even though it’s theirs for the taking.

There is a quote from Jenny Toomey in there: “The 20 people who understand what you’re talking about are the 20 most important people in the world.” I do think a lot of stuff in the book functions as a microcosm for what many artists experienced at the time.

It’s also a reminder of the idiocy that happens when people think there’s lots of money to be made. I love the stories about Matt Suggs realizing what he’s in for and returning a $10,000 cheque, or Lou Barlow’s initial indignation at being told by a record company exec that he “doesn’t have what it takes” before he realizes, “She’s right, I don’t.”

And then Danny Goldberg is indirectly quoted as saying to Superchunk, “I want to use you to look cool. I want to be associated with you and not be a dick.” I’m curious how your interview with him went.

He was very helpful. His position now is back in management. I had interviewed him before, under totally different and antagonistic circumstances. As a reporter, I covered the story of Air America radio when he was briefly running it, after they had this disastrous initial launch by this con man. [provides brief summary of the story] I was skeptical of anyone’s ability to right that ship, and I was reporting things going on there that he didn’t want reported. He seemed to remember that when I interviewed him for this book, but not with any clarity. That was a brief period of his life.

So now he’s a manager, and his take is that the current situation is that he would steer one of his bands to Merge or Matador or Sub Pop over a major label, and his rationale is that the majors no longer have the resources they once did. To the extent that major labels were stupid and horrible to deal with, they also had advantages—one of which was enormous amounts of money and staff to work your record. If you deployed that right, you could have success.

He was unapologetic, but also aware that the industry had changed. He blames the downfall solely on file-sharing, which is wrong and short-sighted and as if it has nothing to do with what he and his colleagues did at Atlantic or any other major label. And he said, “A lot of bands did horribly on major labels and a lot of bands did great on major labels. Nirvana seemed to do okay.” Which is a crazy thing to say: if your front man offs himself, then something’s gone wrong.

If you don’t read the last chapter of the Nirvana book, I’m sure you think it has a happy ending.

Exactly. The other thing he said that was not true was that In Utero sounded like Bleach, implying that Steve Albini was a hack. And whether you like the records or not—I don’t like them much myself—they do sound dramatically different. But we didn’t have a confrontational interview or anything.

One thing that comes through is their character and the character of people they choose to work with. I’m sure to some aspects of the industry, they come off as idealists—not necessarily in the Ian MacKaye mould, but they turned down a lot and they “sacrificed” opportunities to do things the way they wanted to do.

But it comes down to practicality over ideology. It’s not that they would reject Option X because corporations are inherently evil; it’s because it sounds like a really dumb idea that doesn’t suit our needs or goals.

That was a running theme. They are to some extent anti-corporate, but not in a reactionary or reflexive way. They’re not going to be throwing bricks through Starbucks’ window in the Battle of Seattle. And they’re not rude or angry or bitter. The anti-corporatism is based on the realities of what they’re aware of in their business.

It's hilarious to read [Magnetic Fields'] Stephin Merritt's unqualified disdain for the indie rock world. Where would Stephin Merritt be if he had never met [drummer/manager] Claudia Gonson?

She’s certainly his gateway to the real world in a lot of ways.

I didn’t know she had ever worked for Mercury Records—that was news to me.

It was to me, too. She just casually mentioned that during the interview. I had already gone through the period of the interview where we were talking about the differences between Merge and [Magnetic Fields' current label] Nonesuch and all that, and then I mentioned that I had interviewed Danny Goldberg. She said, “Oh, I used to work for him.” That was fortuitous.

It’s amazing to me the intimate detail with which people remember the minutiae of their life in their early 20s. Maybe it’s because it was such an exciting time with important stuff going on, but I don’t think I could do the same if I was being pressed about bands I played in or with or saw at that time.

They were as well, and I pressed them—hard. The way that happened was I’d talk to them and ask what bands of theirs came first, and they would have no clue. But then I’d interview Jonathan Neumann, the drummer of the Slushpuppies, and he’d have one little recollection, and then so would other people and bits start to coalesce. If there were two overlapping details, Mac would say, “Ah, I remember now!”

We used Google Docs to share all the interviews. I would put a transcription up on there and then Mac and Laura would put their notes in: this didn’t happen that way; I remember this. Then they would comment on each other’s comments, and it became like Rashomon or the way rabbinical texts develop, with debates happening in the margins of the text. With 75 or 80 interviews full of other people’s recollections, they were able to work off of those. The initial interviews were a little barren.

My one and only quibble is the lack of a cast of characters. I did get lost several times trying to recall who some of the minor players were.

We never really talked about that. I’ve seen that in other oral histories, but it’s useless to me because I don’t want to flip to the back. I would always try to look a few pages before and try to find the name. The idea of having them all in alphabetical order at either the beginning or end of the book seems less convenient to me. But we never talked about it, and I don’t like that system. Hopefully the narrative is carried forward whether or not you can remember who each person is.

The visual aspect—there are some very intimate photos, like the one with the caption that reads: “Laura after a good cry.”

We used Flickr to organize all the photos; we had about 1000 images. So all of Superchunk were commenting and dating and identifying them.

It’s also interesting how, for me at least, the aesthetic of early ’90s indie artwork doesn’t really hold up. It was cool at the time, but looking at pen scrawls being commemorated 20 years later hurts a bit.

I do, however, really like the Garbage Man gig poster that had a Superchunk press photo with swastikas drawn over Mac’s eyes. Garbage Man was the band of Scott Williams, who was Laura’s ex-boyfriend. It was part of this Raleigh-Chapel Hill rivalry thing. The caption was, “The joke’s on you, motherfucker.” [page 81]

It’s interesting to contrast the slow word-of-mouth way in which Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea became a classic, with the meteoric rise and canonization of Arcade Fire’s Funeral. This book captures a time where you start out doing cassettes and seven-inch singles, then you grow into this larger thing, and then by the time the book ends with Arcade Fire, almost everything is completely different. You have to wonder what young label owners today can learn from this book when there is almost an entirely new set of rules.

The phrase I heard the most often while working on this book, from everybody, was: “This was before the Internet.” The constant was that people would tell stories about the way things happened, but they would make no sense because people wouldn’t behave that way had they had email or cellphones. The idea of Superchunk going on tour and running a label in 1992, being gone for three months without a cellphone—it’s astonishing to imagine. Or Laura staying up all night so she could make calls to distributors and labels in Germany—this was clearly before email. It was a totally different environment, and I think it’s one that fostered the kind of community that really helped Merge and one of the reasons Merge had success: the community of people who are artists and who care about art.

The Corrosion of Conformity guys [the only prior indie success story in Raleigh-Chapel Hill], one of the reasons they were able to create this scene of like-minded people was that [drummer] Reed Mullen’s parents had an office, with either a Xerox or a mimeograph machine, and a phone that had unlimited long distance calling on it. So if you were 17 years old and you wanted to set up a tour, you’d go there and run off flyers and call clubs out of state without having to pay for it. So that drew people to that place and fostered a community.

Of course, there are new kinds of communities fostered by the Internet, and new ways of organizing and talking about things, but back then the technological barriers people had to overcome helped to keep people together. Back then, those relationships were more precious.
There are certain lessons that are universal: don’t be a dick, and don’t get into this because you want to achieve something—do it because you’re into it. Do it because you like the process of doing it, and because you’ll enjoy it even if you’ve failed five years into it. That’s the attitude that Mac and Laura took the entire time.