Music » Music Features

Merge ahead

How an N.C. indie became the little label that could



I Hate Music, the 10th album from Chapel Hill's Superchunk, is one of the quartet's best. It's a slab of muscular, pogoing pop-rock that makes room for stark acoustic intros, swirling strings and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a one-minute hardcore blitz. It's bitter in passages, but constantly redeemed by youthful enthusiasm. Though the band members are well into their 40s, Superchunk sounds as punchy and potent as it ever has.

But there's another reason to be excited about I Hate Music, which has less to do with how great it sounds. It's the fifth new album produced by an N.C. artist that Durham's Merge Records has released this year. With a new one still on the way from math-y Chapel Hill institution Polvo, local albums constitute more than a third of the new LPs and EPs the label has announced for this year. It's a promising development, one that holds true to principles Merge has espoused all along.

"In terms of the way everyone here identifies, it's certainly important to us to not just be seen as a record company or a media company that's existing outside of any context at all," Mac McCaughan, Superchunk's frontman and one of Merge's co-founders, told INDY Week in the spring of 2011.

A month earlier, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs became one of the few records released by an independent label to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, though independents have been doing well in recent years, claiming the last five awards. It was also Merge's first release to hit No. 1 on Billboard's albums chart.

"The context of where we are is important, not just because there are bands on the label that are from around here. We exist in a place where it's a good place to have a business, but it's also just a good place to live," McCaughan said.

McCaughan and Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance founded Merge in Chapel Hill two decades ago as an outlet for their friends' punk records. In recent years, they have drifted from that foundation. The Grammy-winning bombast of Canada's Arcade Fire and the old-school pop simplicity of She & Him took Merge to heights rarely reached by independent labels. The Suburbs has been certified gold by the Record Industry Association of America, meaning it has sold more than 500,000 copies in the U.S. Other Merge releases from Spoon and She & Him have debuted among Billboard's Top 10.

For a while, the label's success seemed to dictate their direction. Merge's releases became dominated by straightforward, tuneful fare. Outliers came drenched in shoegazing atmosphere (Baltimore's Wye Oak) or psychedelic dance grooves (Ontario's Caribou), but by and large, Merge's output for much of the 2000s featured far more melodic seduction than indie rock grit.

At the same time, the label's local selections began to dry up. From 2007 to 2009, only one N.C. band — the Rosebuds — released a new full-length on Merge. Such an influential imprint residing in the state was still helpful to the scene. Merge maintained an active role in the community, sponsoring events such as Durham's now-defunct Troika Music Festival and packing Carrboro's Cat's Cradle with some of their biggest names for the 20th anniversary celebration Merge XX in 2009. But for a while there, the records it chose to put its name on weren't all that representative of the town — or the state — it calls home.

Slowly, Merge's attention has returned to its immediate surroundings. The label scooped up the Mountain Goats, the neurotic and cathartic songwriting vehicle of Durham transplant John Darnielle, in 2010 and released his two newest LPs. In the near future, Merge will handle the next album from the Reigning Sound, a finely tuned rock 'n' roll band based in Asheville and led by Greg Cartwright (formerly Greg Oblivian of the Oblivians).

Merge has been keen on emerging talent as well. This spring, it surprised some by releasing the debut EP from Raleigh's Barren Girls, a dark and driving female punk band that is still figuring itself out. More impressive is Miracle Temple, the Merge-imprinted sophomore outing from Mount Moriah. The new album invigorates the group's smoldering folk-rock with skewed country grandeur and quicker tempos, forsaking neither the hypnotic textures of guitarist Jenks Miller nor the patient poetry of singer Heather McEntire.

"So many people move here to get on Merge," McEntire offered shortly before Miracle Temple's release. "Local bands come and go. People are breaking up, quitting, moving, starting something else. [Merge is] cautious. You have to be really cautious these days. So I think maybe they were watching us for a little while to see if we'd fizzle out, or if we were as committed as we seemed."

This summer, Merge's recommitment to the local scene has been thrown into sharp relief. Leading up to I Hate Music's release, it unleashed a new album from the Love Language and a reissue of the Mountain Goats essential All Hail West Texas. Thus, the new Superchunk LP is also the label's third straight local release.

More than an important regional offering, I Hate Music is the high-water mark in a year that's seen Merge reaffirm its taste for rowdy rock. The Love Language's Ruby Red runs best when breeding psych-rock surge a la Thee Oh Sees with the band's reliably catchy melodies. Even better is MCII, the second outing from San Francisco garage spark plug Mikal Cronin, which boosts nervy 12-string jangles with concussive lo-fi fuzz.

"Do you like this place?" McCaughan jeers on "Overflows," the opener to I Hate Music. "Do you like this sound? Do you like this taste? Oh yeah, you're not around." A few years ago, it would have been tempting to mock the irony of his tirade, to point out how Merge had deserted both the place and the music that they once championed.

Today, the lines feel like a defiant declaration, one that McCaughan and Ballance have very much earned. Their label is as plugged into the N.C. scene as it ever has been. And, as their new album emphatically proves, they haven't forgotten how to rock.

Add a comment