- SPIN Rating:4 of 10
Label: Night People
Merchandise are a pair of mild-mannered twentysomethings recording in their house in Tampa (well, actually, three guys on record, and now even sorta four since they're touring with a drummer, but apparently two guys do most of the work) who've been building a "buzz" in select circles over the past few years. They get compared to '80s groups a lot, which makes at least a little bit of sense, since like too many people over the past quarter-century they do the Jesus and Mary Chain (sometimes via Dinosaur Jr.) supersoak-it-all-in-reverb thing, and singer Carson Cox whines halfway like Morrissey in baritone mode and Ian Curtis in lowing lower registers, and their album Children of Desire last year had a thing called "In Nightmare Room" and another track that confessed, "When I was a boy, I would have nightmares in the day," which might well be why somebody writing for Dusted said "they sound like guys with Flock of Seagulls haircuts" (Flock having had their own "Nightmares" song in '83), though really they don't. Also, Depeche Mode get cited a lot as an influence, seemingly thanks to cut-rate synth abuse.
One thing this misses is that a lot of that '80s modern-pop dinkiness (certainly Depeche and Flock) was post-disco dance music underneath — well, at least dance music for lonely bedsits — and Merchandise live rhythmically in Nowherezville. Their groove-lack also cancels out most Wax Trax, krautrock, and Goth analogies well-wishers make (though they do retain much of the latter's wrist-slitting aspects), not to mention Miles Davis/Minutemen/Roxy/Dylan/Haggard (!?)/Boyz II Men (!!??) analogies the band and their publicists prefer people were making: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got etc….Well, okay, it might mean something, just not that.
On the other hand, Cox has said dub reggae inspired him to record in the first place — he and guitarist/whateverer David Vassalotti and bassist/minority-shareholder Patrick Brady had come out of an early-'80s Florida teen hardcore and ska scene they now describe as life-saving but limiting — and their 2010 cassette Gone Are the Silk Gardens of Youth had numbers called "Locked in the Dark (Boulders Meets Merch Rockers Uptown)" (note Augustus Pablo reference) and "Wage Dub," and at least in the latter you could detect sounds dropping out so background became foreground. Two other selections were "Graveyard" (not Goth enough) and "Schoolyard" (not "Me and Julio" enough), a nominally intriguing juxtaposition on paper.
Sundry other tapes (niftiest title: Terminal Jagger Jane's Addiction Boxset), CD-Rs, Record Store Day 45s with Silver Jews covers for B-sides, and at least one legit album dotted with your standard recorder grot, heckler spray, and trunk spizzle had seeped out by the time Children of Desiregot them noticed by the kind of canny consumers who also download Waxahatchee, Youth Lagoon, and Phosphorescent records from Amazon. Drowsy, low-volume, waterlogged, amorphously fading-away-not-burning-out even if Vassalotti is a Neil Young feedback fan, it had six tracks, including two 11-minute marathons, and sounded exactly as exciting as all that suggests, all the way to the drippy church organ at the end. It also got packaged with a booklet of journal entries that corresponded to the lyrics in some way or other.
Well, the good news is that the Merchandisers' new Totale Nite, mastered by Sonic Boom from longtime low-calorie Hawkwind-powered generators Spacemen 3 and released on an Iowa City mini-indie called Night People that disappointingly has nothing to do with disco-era Lee Dorsey, does not feel quite so emo and emaciated. Nor quite so generic, either, but please understand we're talking granular degrees of naptime here. Also, this time there's only five tracks, four of which are still long (6:36 and up), though none break the dreaded 10-minute barrier. Concision counts! Though amazingly, leadoff batter "Who Are You?" somehow manages to be both the shortest and most vague, a neat trick on a record so meandering.
Cox has actually expressed concern that Merchandise fans might find the album too challenging, due to perhaps the title cut containing an extremely brief interlude of Sabbathoid funeral plod, then a couple minutes of what passes for faux-Albert Ayler sax blat, or maybe he's worried about the oppressive 45 seconds of power-violence kerblooey that ends closer "Winter's Dream," which cut had nonetheless kicked off seven minutes earlier with a snowflake or two of atmosphere right off a late-'90s Projekt Records Goth Christmas sampler. And "I'll Be Gone" leads propeller-like whirligigging into some momentary rainy-day twang that shambling combos from the north of England might mistake for country music. So, no argument — there is stuff here. Now and then.
What aren't here are coherently shaped songs, or hooks, or riffs, or melodies that stick — maybe Merch consider all those things gauche, or maybe they're still waiting for the sedatives to wear off. Cox's vocal grain might have potential if he'd wake up and do more than mumble like a soggy noodle bored by his own noodledom. Between his blank delivery and Vassalotti's blanketing distorto-mouthwash (which also has its moments — the fleeting Middle Eastern hookah action in "Anxiety's Door," say), lyrics peek out only by accident: "I'm gonna plant myself inside just to be free from all you motherfuckers," Cox seems to mutter once. Also, "I'd sooner kill myself than be someone else." "Anxiety's Door" has something about walking streets at night in a city you love and dreaming of a perfect country beside the sea where the sun comes out to talk. So okay, sure, Merchandise have feelings. Probably intense ones, being young and all. But do they have lunch?