Thursday, July 17, 2014

Merge Records: the past five years

Merge Records celebrates its 25th anniversary next week in its hometown of Chapel Hill/Carrboro, N.C. The tiny label that could long ago outgrew its association with its founding band, Superchunk: first it was as the label that brought Neutral Milk Hotel and Magnetic Fields into the world, then it helped alter the landscape of independent music in the last 10 years with the 2004 release of Arcade Fire’s Funeral.

On a road trip to Merge’s 15th anniversary celebrations, I fell for the lady I’m still with, and with whom we have a three-year-old son. I have numerous sentimental reasons to head south for their 25th, as well as the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk, Destroyer, Caribou, Teenage Fanclub, Bob Mould, Wye Oak, Telekinesis, the Mountain Goats, Mikal Cronin, Mary Timony’s new band Ex Hex, and many more also happen to be there.

At least half the records Merge puts out these days are either new albums by lifers who refuse to give up, or reissues of a current artist’s past catalog: Merge rescues early work by Destroyer or Mountain Goats or Bob Mould’s albums with Sugar from obscurity; they’ve brought back the Archers of Loaf and kept the career of Richard Buckner alive, etc. Sure, the average age of a Merge artist is probably well into the mid-40s (like the label owners themselves). That doesn’t mean it’s resting on its laurels. Many other articles about this anniversary will retell the tales of the label’s flagship acts and landmark albums; many of those tales are captured in John Cook’s excellent oral history of the label (Torontonians, take note: if name Cook’s sounds familiar, it’s because he’s also the former Gawker journalist who, along with the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, broke the Rob Ford crack tape story to the world.)

Here, however, are 10 highly underrated albums from the five years of Merge’s history, since the last party. We all know about the essential recent records by Spoon (debuted in Billboard's Top 5), M. Ward, Caribou (Polaris shortlist), Destroyer (Polaris shortlist), the Mountain Goats and Superchunk—or that She and Him exists—and oh yeah, there's the minor matter that Arcade Fire's The Suburbs won a freaking Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Put that in your pipe. Here, however, are some less obvious titles that make the label much more than a nostalgia trip.

The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath (October 2009)

My original review:

How much you like The Clientele depends entirely on how much you can stand wispy British men singing autumnal odes over languid dream-pop with sparkling guitars, tinkly keyboards, brushed drums, and a melodic bass player who ties it all together. If that works for you, then Bonfires on the Heath will sweep the clouds away from your rainiest days.

Most of the references here date back to ’60s British folk-pop; at times it sounds like Nick Drake fronting The Velvet Underground; there are shades of the Zombies and hints of Pink Floyd (especially the Dark Side-ish pedal steel on the title track). The sunny optimism of their game-changing 2006 album God Save the Clientele surfaces only on a couple of tracks; here, they’re back to being their mopey selves, only now they sound a lot more muscular doing it, and relatively recent fourth member Mel Draisey fleshes out the arrangements beautifully with violin and a variety of keyboards.

Singer/guitarist Alisdair MacLean has threatened that this will be The Clientele’s final album. And after the excellence of both this and the previous album, he might just be spinning his wheels from now on anyway—it’s hard to imagine The Clientele capturing their essence any better than this.

Tracey Thorn – Love and its Opposite (May 2010)

I put this album on this week for the first time in years—and remembered why it had been so long, despite its brilliance. This album kicks me in the gut, such is the efficacy of Thorn’s portrait of the uncertainties of middle age. It’s so good that it can never possibly be background music.

My original review:

Tracy Thorn, of Everything But the Girl, is definitely not making music for girls (or boys) anymore: this, her second album, is for mature audiences only. And by mature, I mean anyone with enough life experience to be in a long-term relationship that either fractures after years of slowly developing cracks, or somehow survives despite years of disappointments. Mature in a way that will no longer accept a tired cliché like “I miss you like deserts miss the rain.”

Thorn let’s you know exactly what you’re in for right off the top: “Oh! The Divorces” is a devastating song about watching friends fall apart, lost idealism, the fallacy of romantic pop songwriting, and the fall from passionate beginnings to mundane custody obligations—the latter is done during the song’s bridge in a mere 11 words: “the honeymoon/ the wedding rings/ the afternoon handovers by the swings.” Ominously, the song both opens and closes with the question: “Who’s next?”

Love and its Opposites is not a breakup album—after all, Thorn is still married to her former EBTG bandmate and father of her children, Ben Watt. Rather, it’s full of well-crafted observations of middle age in general: parenting teenagers (“you worry about growing up/ I worry about letting go”), singles bars (“Can you tell how long I’ve been here? / Can you smell the fear?”) and family ghosts in the old hometown.

The lyrics are the real selling point; on first listen, the music is merely pleasant and, well, adult. Thorn’s melancholy, empathetic voice is nothing if not subtle, but understatement serves her well; the arrangements here are often sparse, but always spot-on, and there are enough colours and tempos to rescue it from being a middle-aged mope. Much like the quiet, unseen daily dramas that she documents, there is far more going on here than first meets the eye. (June 10)

Wye Oak – Civilian (March 2011)

My original review:

Wye Oak don’t sound like a rock band, certainly not a rock band from a city like Baltimore. They sound like a force of nature: a rushing river, a towering mountain range, an expansive Montana plain. Not that they sound natural: there’s nothing acoustic about Civilian, their third album, which is full of raging electric guitars and distorted sounds. But the way this duo conjure the elements at their disposal is magical, the way a sonic gust suddenly slaps you like a galeforce wind, the way Andy Stack’s drums gallop and lurch, following the push and pull of Jenn Wasner’s guitars, the way Wasner’s calm and understated vocals anchor everything like the eye of a hurricane.

It’s a massive sound for a duo—Stack juggles keyboards while drumming—but imagining the challenge of reproducing this live shouldn’t distract you from this incredibly vivid recording. Themes of regret and loss dominate—the opening lyric is “Two small deaths happened today”—but Civilian is powerful and uplifting, despite being a bit a downer on the surface.

Their lineage is obvious—Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Dinosaur Jr., Yo La Tengo—but they take the best of all those acts and reinvent them for a new decade. With each album, Wye Oak has improved exponentially, and Civilian is no exception. It’s their first full-blown classic, and likely the first of many.

Wild Flag – s/t (September 2011)

Hey, remember when Carrie Brownstein was a musician? Many know that she was part of Sleater-Kinney, but this punk rock dream project with Mary Timony seems to have been shoved under the rug in many a lengthy profile of the Portlandia star. The geographically dispersed band decided this would be their one and only album; a shame—not just because of the talent involved, but because this felt like they were on the verge of totally blowing our minds. No doubt Timony will step up to the plate with her new band, Ex Hex, whose debut is due this fall, but already I can’t help but wonder what it would sound like to hear her bouncing off Brownstein again.

Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor (October 2011)

I know I have a thing for underdogs, but I frankly cannot believe that Eric Bachmann is not more beloved than he is. There’s never been a bad Crooked Fingers album, and he keeps getting better. He’s been spending the last year as part of Neko Case’s band; at her Massey Hall show in May, she let him open the encore with his song "Sleep All Summer" (from 2005’s Dignity and Shame), which instantly brought tears to eyes of this enormous fan (and my lady, the ubersuperfan). Anyway, yadda yadda, 2011’s Breaks in the Armor, another amazing Crooked Fingers record. Ho-fucking-hum.

My original review:

Over 20 years and 12 albums, Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann has nothing left to prove to anyone: especially after his slick 2008 masterpiece Forfeit/Fortune (a perfect album that’s easily one of the most underrated albums of the last five years) and this year’s triumphant reunion of his ’90s indie rock band Archers of Loaf, the legacy of which overshadowed his singer/songwriter work as Crooked Fingers for far too long.

So rather than return to past glories, Breaks in the Armor sounds like Bachmann starting fresh, alone in the studio (except for female vocal harmonies by longtime bandmate Liz Durrett) and feeling his way around a drum kit with a primal pounding that brings a refreshingly raw amateur feel to otherwise carefully constructed and arranged songs. Despite its solitary nature, Breaks in the Armor is not a quiet affair; Bachmann belts it out throughout, even when tempos dip. He plays with your expectations; the catchiest rock song on the album (“The Counterfeiters”) is played mostly on just bass and drums.

Bachmann has a rich and deep discography; newcomers will be surprised to learn that Breaks in the Armor is just the tip of the iceberg.

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits (August 2012)

Everyone loves Spoon. Lots of people loved Wolf Parade, and there was plenty of love for Handsome Furs as well. So how come people didn’t shit themselves for this collab between Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner? Beats me. This is ripe for rediscovery.

My original review:

Between them, Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs have made at least four of the best rock records of the last decade. It should shock no one, then, that when they teamed up as Divine Fits that they should make one of the greatest albums of 2012. Eleven songs in under 45 minutes: these men know how to write great pop hooks, rock riffs, leave room for experimentation and get it all over with before anyone has any time to get bored.

Spoon records are beloved in part because of their minimalism, their distillation of every production trick in the book into bare necessities—that is just as true here as on any Spoon record. Which makes one of the most interesting things about Divine Fits—where the vocals are shared equally between Daniel and Boeckner—the power dynamic: Boeckner clearly loves synths more than Daniel does (the last Handsome Furs album featured barely any guitar at all), but there’s very little else that distinguishes this from a great Spoon album, a natural follow-up to that band’s 2001 breakthrough Kill the Moonlight.

Even though both men have hardly been slouching lately—the final Handsome Furs album is a posthumous contender for the Polaris Prize—Divine Fits sounds like a creative rebirth, the sound of songwriters and studio geeks rediscovering the joy in their craft. With the dissolution of Handsome Furs, Boeckner is now a free agent, and who knows what state Spoon is in, but Divine Fits is far too good to be a temporary side project.

Daphni – Jiaolong (October 2012)

Pilfered from my original review and this Maclean’s article:

Dan Snaith of Dundas, Ontario, has made dance music for the last decade as Caribou: sometimes of the bedroom, minimalist variety; sometimes as psychedelic rock; sometimes as astounding, vivid and fully realized as he did on 2010’s Swim. For the past year, Snaith has been quietly releasing 12” singles under the name Daphni, hastily assembled tracks using samples and an analog synthesizer. This is material distinctly designed for dance floors; Snaith hesitated to assemble it on an album at all. Many Caribou fans might find it too repetitive and not as delicately layered as Snaith’s main project, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the product of the same creative mind. The bass lines are nimble, the synth squiggles are melodic and endearing, and the drum programming dances around the four-on-the-floor pulse. On “Jiao,” he takes a synth solo that sounds like a nod to Charanjit Singh’s recently reissued Moog classic Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat.

Key to Daphni’s strength, however, is that it also sounds tactile: this isn’t electronic music created in its own vacuum, where the listener has no idea where the sounds came from or why they’re all colliding at any given moment. Listening to Jiaolong, you can picture Snaith manually adding and subtracting various layers: from ostinato synth patterns to long-lost African soul music samples to Indian raga motifs to—I could swear this is on the Daphni track Pairs—Sophie the Giraffe, that ubiquitous baby squeak toy. That guarantees a good time right there.

Telekinesis – Dormarion (April 2013)

Do you like good songs? Do you like rock music? Hell, doesn’t everyone? And yet here’s another guy who’s insanely talented, and yet languishes in total obscurity, even among people who claim to like these sorts of things. Seattle’s Michael Lerner is a drummer who loves New Pornographic power pop, and made this, his third album, with Spoon’s Jim Eno producing. Eno dialled down the guitars a bit and brought more synths to the fore, but ultimately the sonics are secondary to the riffs and hooks Lerner packs in here—and he gets exponentially better each time. Dormarion’s songs are seriously stadium-sized—even the one with just Lerner on solo acoustic guitar.

So c’mon, the likes of Foo Fighters, Weezer and U2  continue to phone in snoozerific new material and the far infinitely superior records of Telekinesis can’t catch a break? Listen, I’m old enough that it’s rare for me to fall in love with new rock’n’roll music (but not new music, obviously). I learned long ago that many artists I like fall outside the mainstream for a reason. The only time I get remotely irked is when someone like Lerner has all the goods and no one seems to care.

Okay, grandpa out.

Mikal Cronin – MC II (June 2013)

My original review:

A garage rocker from San Francisco with a taste for psychedelia and a B.F.A. degree in music, Mikal Cronin is much more than another shaggy-haired guy with a distortion pedal, power-pop melodies and a love of folk-rock harmonies—though he’s all that too, like a next-generation J Mascis. Cronin is a much better songwriter than most of his contemporaries—including Kurt Vile and Ty Segall, two peers he’s often compared to (he also plays in Segall’s band)—and switches easily from wistful country rock to summer anthems to acoustic ballads to heavy shredding, and leaves room for the occasional violin solo. Though the recording is raw and live, there’s nothing remotely sloppy about this; Cronin proves to be a master craftsman in every aspect. Anyone looking for the great guitar rock album of summer 2013 should pay close attention. 

Reigning Sound – Shattered (July 2014)

Instant classic! Reviewed last week, here.

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