Last month, Merge Records celebrated its 25th anniversary; I previewed this before the ladyfriend and I headed down for the festival they hold every five years, for some kickball, some Carrburritos, some old friends, and more music over four days than we can properly consume at this point in our lives.
Wednesday, July 23, Carolina Theatre, Durham
Mount Moriah: Star-power lead singer, lose the band. Okay, that's harsh—they're decent players, but they don't bring out anything in Heather McEntire’s songs. Maybe they were playing it tame in the confines of a soft-seat theatre. Or, more likely, they need a producer to come in and kick everyone's asses, because there's a great album somewhere inside this band. Also: unless you can jam like Crazy Horse, it does not behoove you to jam like Crazy Horse.
Lambchop: a curious band. I don't just mean musically curious, although they’re that, too. I mean curious, as in, it's weird that people love this band so much. On paper, I understand the appeal: oddball old dude starts a living room jam with friends, makes a couple of good records with increasingly lush production, is big in Europe, and keeps on keeping on. Arguably, Lambchop peaked with the 2000 album Nixon, which is why that's the record they performed in its entirety on this occasion. But even revisiting that record now, what was weird and wonderful back then hasn't aged all that well—and not just because Kurt Wagner spent the last 14 years largely squandering Nixon’s capital. The band's 2009 Mergefest show was legendary—it was recently pressed on vinyl—and even converted folks like me. This show, however, was purely only for the faithful. Of which I am not one. Even the reliably witty banter between Wagner and pianist Tony Crow was absent, due to the recital atmosphere. A sleepy start to a great weekend.
Thursday, July 24, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Eleanor Friedberger: I will always love at least 30% of what Friedberger does. Here, she performed solo, except when Telekinesis joined her for her last song, in which she ditched the guitar and transformed from oddball singer-songwriter into the rock star she is.
Telekinesis: Always liked this band—had no idea how much I loved this band. And I’m not just saying that because they threw me the biggest curveball of the whole week, by covering “Don’t Change” by INXS—that terminally uncool relic that happens to be one of my all-time favourites. By that point in the set, however, drummer/singer Michael Lerner had already delivered more than a half-dozen songs that sound like long-lost classics. I said it often in the weeks leading up to the festival, but Telekinesis is easily the most criminally underrated band on the Merge roster, a mainstream breakthrough in the making who should easily take the now-vacant space left by Spoon’s departure.
The Clientele: This band split up after their high-water mark, 2009’s Bonfires on the Heath, an album where the featherweight trio’s sound was bolstered considerably by Mel Draisey on violin and keyboards. Here, they were a trio again, and while I usually fall for their charms at Mergefest, this time left me a bit cold—and more than a bit sedate, seeing them sandwiched between Telekinesis and the Rock*a*Teens.
The Rock*a*Teens: There is nothing remotely sedate about the recently reunited Rock*a*Teens, who take every single song they have and pummel it to the ground until it cries out in ecstasy. I would say that Chris Lopez sings himself hoarse, but he sounded like that from the first note. This Georgia band is beloved south of the Mason-Dixon Line, more than a bit of a mystery everywhere else. This performance, however, undoubtedly turned everyone there into true believers. Maybe they had to go away for all those years to come back with such vigour and abandon; I can’t imagine any band maintaining this kind of intensity for over a decade.
Reigning Sound: "Really, we're a much better band than this,” said Greg Cartwright, after one of several false starts of the evening. “You should come see us again some time." Indeed, I will: the band’s latest, Shattered, is a swoony garage-rock gem, and he’s assembled a fine group of players to deliver it live. Clearly the touring for this, his first record in five years, is just getting under way. He’ll have a well-oiled rock’n’roll machine by the time they hit the Horseshoe in Toronto on October 25.
Superchunk: Oh yeah, these guys. They were awesome, as they always are, even if bassist Laura Ballance no longer performs live with them because 20 years of playing with Superchunk gave her tinnitus (amazing, really, that she’s the only one afflicted of the four). Because this band as predictably good as they've always been, the lady and I cut out early to preserve ourselves for the rest of the weekend.
Friday, July 25, Orange County Social Club, Carrboro
Hiss Golden Messenger: I received this band's upcoming Merge release before the festival; it sounds nothing like the sweaty Southern glorious mess I heard at this show, which was full of saxophone and Waylon Jennings covers and Dylanesque delivery and a guest guitar spot from William Tyler. Never mind this new album, I want to hear what they lay down a year from now.
Friday, July 25, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Imperial Teen: Rolling Stone called them “power twee.” I can’t top that.
Mountain Goats: Never liked this band, even if everything about them seems tailored to my taste. Looking forward to John Darnielle’s new novel, however; I suspect that medium suits him much better (for me, anyway).
Wye Oak: Five years ago, this was the most promising new band on the Merge roster, a promise they more than fulfilled on their 2011 album Civilian. Back then, the duo were young nerdlings who hung out all weekend and could be seen front and centre in the audience, watching every act. This time? Mergefest is but one night in a busy tour schedule, a tour where guitar hero Jenn Wasner has shifted to mostly playing bass and keyboards, with new songs that come alive in ways only hinted at on 2014’s transitional release, Shriek. In a week full of old folks, it’s acts like Wye Oak that all but guarantee Merge will be around to celebrate another 10 years, at least. (We’re talking about the music business here. C’mon, I’d hate to be overly optimistic.)
Destroyer: see here.
Saturday, July 26, Cat’s Cradle parking lot, Carrboro
Ex Hex: It was 34 degrees Celsius before the humidity, in a sticky, sunny parking lot outside the Cat’s Cradle in downtown Carrboro on the closing Saturday. Who decided to put on a festival here? The first act of the day I caught, the new power trio fronted by Mary Timony (Helium, Wild Flag), was good—but could have been great. I suspected they were purposely holding back a bit, lest they melt into a puddle on stage. I wanted to dance, but knew that if my tapped my toe in the least, a river of sweat would start pouring down my forehead. These were not ideal rock’n’roll conditions. That said, Ex Hex delivered. I can’t wait to see them with air conditioning so they can turn up the heat on their own terms.
Mikal Cronin: Sadly, I missed most of this set for social reasons, but Cronin and his headbanging hippie comrades made his already raucous recordings sound remarkably tame. Why did I skip this, and not Bob Mould? Grrrr.
Bob Mould: Never liked this man’s music, nor understood his iconic status. I was, obviously, in the tiniest minority here.
Teenage Fanclub: If I have to listen to a four-piece rock band in suffocating heat while standing on asphalt, it might as well be venerable masters of songcraft singing in perfect three-part harmony.
Caribou: This was more like it. As much as I love Merge Records’ roster, let’s be honest: there are way too many guitars involved. That made Dan Snaith and company the beautiful black sheep of the festival, delivering hypnotic, psychedelic electronics as the sun went down. This was the four-piece incarnation of Caribou—no horns, sadly—and the tour is just kicking off in advance of the new album, Our Love, out in October. Honestly, they were a bit rusty, and the sound mix was somewhat random. But Caribou had zero problems winning over the rockist crowd, many of whom seemed to have no idea who they were. (Best overheard comment from a new fan: “So, are, like, these guys from Italy or something?”)
Neutral Milk Hotel: Jeff Mangum spent most of the last 15 years as a total recluse, an enigma that only fuelled interest in the 1998 psych-folk classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Mangum was the anti-Kurt Cobain: like Cobain, he was overwhelmed by the demands of, if not stardom, then at least public life and fawning adoration from a cult audience; unlike Cobain, Mangum’s act of refusal did not have a tragic end. It’s okay to say no. Tell the rest of the world to go to hell. Pull a Salinger. You don’t have to end it all.
Cut to 2013: a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel are on the road, even playing some major markets twice, and the mystique is but a distant memory.
Or is it? Before their set here, festival MC Margaret Cho announced that the band requested that no photos or videos be taken during their performance. That usually goes over like a lead balloon (pity the poor security guards asked to enforce this, which they did), but surely a group of fans like the ones gathered here, people for whom music and the strange people who create it are integral to their lives, would respect such a request? Largely, yes, except for the usual smattering of libertarians drawn to indie culture, who found the whole thing pretentious—even if it’s entirely in character from a guy who didn’t want to be seen for the better part of a decade. Some people who should know better really got themselves in a twist about this.
I’m not a fan, even though I’ve come to appreciate Aeroplane over the years; Mangum’s voice is still a subjective hangup for me—too emo, for starters. For me, the pleasure of this set was not just witnessing history and seeing a bunch of fans’ dreams come true, but specifically people who were barely alive when Aeroplane come out—a quintet of teenage girls standing in front me, for example—who joined arms and swayed and sang along at full volume to this mysterious music. Mangum, though he looks like he’s been living in the Louisiana swamps for quite a while, doesn’t act like a reluctant performer at all; I was kind of shocked by how at ease he was with rote stage banter. The rest of the band—including drummer Jeremy Barnes, who’s spent years playing accordion as A Hawk and a Hacksaw (which I much prefer)—all looked delighted to be there, singing along off-mic and delivering intense, physical performances when the mood called for it. The most affecting moments were the intimate interludes when NMH became a brass band (“The Fool”), accompanied by Barnes on accordion and (who I think was) his Hacksaw bandmate Heather Trost on violin.
Because Aeroplane is so well-known and beloved, the only truly revealing moment of the show was “Little Birds,” a song about an abusive father that stands as the only post-Aeroplane NMH song ever released (long bootlegged, it finally appeared on a seven-inch single in 2011). In that moment, we were reminded that this art was—is—the product of a damaged man, or at least a man who’s faced a few demons in his life and sought solace in art.
No matter how curious we may be, it’s really none of our business what Jeff Mangum was up to all that time, what he plans to do next or why he’s touring with his band this year. Maybe he’s just in the right mental space to do so again. Maybe he or someone he loves has medical bills to pay (this is America, after all). Maybe he’s doing it just to shut everyone up and collect a paycheque.
The latter, of course, is unlikely. There was no better act with which to close a celebration Merge Records’ 25th anniversary, with which to contemplate art, commerce, compromise and creative triumph, all under a Carolinian moon.