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Merge ahead 

A "poppy" fall proves Merge Records still believes in rock 'n' roll

"I believe in rock 'n' roll," declares Ivan Howard of the Rosebuds on the Raleigh band's debut Merge Records effort, Makeout. This faith manifests itself on all the new releases this season from Merge Records, local label of Superchunk's Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan.

Superchunk's own Cup of Sand, Matt Suggs' Amigo Row, East River Pipe's Garbageheads on Endless Stun, Ladybug Transistor's eponymous release, the Rosebuds' aforementioned debut, and Portastatic's Autumn Was a Lark--much as these albums can rock out, they express plenty of "popitude" too--the love of melody, arrangement, instrumental variety, and plenty of catchy hooks, hooks, hooks! That just-right mixture of rock and pop is what ties together the fall line from Merge, a group of records you can dance or chill out to, in equal measure. It's a mixture of raucous energy and song craft that points to Merge's continued ability to bring out music from Indie Rock Nation, that much-ballyhooed, oft-reported-defunct country.

"It's quite a poppy fall, isn't it," McCaughan--universally nicknamed Mac--noted by email last week as Superchunk prepared for a fall tour. The quartet will be playing at Cat's Cradle on Thursday, Oct. 16 (along with the Rosebuds and the world premiere of a new tour film that is on the group's upcoming DVD release). Superchunk has just released Cup of Sand, a two-CD compilation of singles, live tracks, and rarities that is anything but a throwaway. Instead, the album reminds you of everything great about Superchunk, and how good the band is at compressing brilliance into even tossed-away b-side covers.

It's the group's third compilation, but they are hardly scraping the bottom of the barrel. Mentioning that his favorites on the album are probably "White Noise" and "The Length of Las Ramblas," Mac also adds that, "We did actually forget about a couple songs that some fans reminded us about after it was too late." After 13 years, Superchunk seems to have more great music gathering dust in the archives than most acts double or triple their age.

This band's song titles alone ("Never Too Young to Smoke," "Basement Life") evoke a whole sensibility that exists in the mingling of dead-serious rocking and fun-loving poplore, in the combination of believing that rock can save your soul and knowing that it's just a pop song. On "Her Royal Fisticuffs" and other tracks, we can hear the glories of Jim Wilbur and Mac's overdriven guitars, Jon Wurster's bashed-out rhythms and perfectly-placed tom-tom fills, Ballance's steady bass, and Mac's vocals, somehow desperate and soothing all at once. This is music that sustains: "emo" that expresses the full range of emotions, not just the blast of rock or the perfect chord combination of pop. "I'm not sorry I brought you here, no way," Mac sings on Cup of Sand's opening track, "The Majestic." Listening to Cup of Sand, there's no need to even pose the idea of apology.

Matt Suggs' Amigo Row seems like a rare treasure from 1974, snuggled comfortably in some golden bargain bin. The second release from the former head honcho of Butterglory drops with a soft thud that sounds like the mellowed recording techniques of those stoned-out years. But the strange lyrics about sleazy, down-and-out characters give the album an edgy quality. It blows in on a warm, Southwestern desert breeze, gusting up memories of stale beer and cigarettes from some roadside barroom at sunrise: sublime and destroyed and invigorating all at once in the bleak dawn.

F.M. Cornog's homemade rock made under his pseudonym East River Pipe is equally haunting. Though the songs ("Where Does All the Money Go?," "Millionaires of Doubt") speak to contemporary social issues, there's a stark dreaminess to the record. Crafted on a Tascam 388 mini-studio in Cornog's own house, Garbageheads on Endless Stun is sad. Full of plinky, lo-fi instrumentation reaching for orchestral grandness, the tracks are rock and pop songs led astray, searching for where they came from. Like the girl Cornog sings about in "Monumental Freaks," who seems to have left her burnt-out-hippie parents behind for the highway, East River Pipe sets out for isolated territories, a lonely figure turning knobs on a creaky old transistor radio, searching for meaning in the static of some distant station that barely comes in.

If Suggs and Cornog set out solo, Ladybug Transistor journeys from their hip Brooklyn enclave to the Southwest and back again as a festive troupe. As one song on their latest, self-titled album puts it, they go from "NY - San Anton" and return again to see their city lights. The band continues to gaze back into rock and pop history--to the ornate arrangements of '60s groups that in turn harkened back to some musty, Victorian parlor song. But on their latest, a bit of retro-cowboy elegance makes its appearance too, perhaps because the record was recorded in Tucson with Calexico/Giant Sand producer Craig Schumacher.

What's cool is that there's something ultra-au courant in what Ladybug Transistor does with old stylings, a thrift-store rescue of throwaways transformed into a new community of do-it-yourself chic. Gary Olson's dreamboat tenor, the melodic 12-string guitar pluckings of Jeff Baron, the strings and bowed vibes, the cello and trumpet and touch of pedal steel guitar make for a sweet, eloquent mood: lots of camaraderie and warmth. As Sasha Bell sings on "The Places You'll Call Home:" "It's lookin' all right."

Raleigh's own Rosebuds share this sense of communal pleasure, but where Ladybug Transistor gets all pretty and poppy, the Rosebuds can rock. Forget about the whole blah-blah Strokes blah-blah White Stripes garage-rock revival, this is the blast you've been waiting for. With its fabulously punny title from couple/bandmates Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp, Makeout is the group's first effort, and it's a fully-formed creature. When Howard sings, "All my downtown friends and my baby and me, we're going downtown, trying to get in for free," you're ready to join the charge right beside them.

Then there's Portastatic. After a month-long residency at The Cave last spring and a summer tour, the name has come to mean more than a Mac side-project: on Autumn Was a Lark, one hears a group playing. There are the bar-band covers Portastatic has been performing live recently: Badfinger's "Baby Blue" with Tift Merritt on backing vocals, Springsteen's "Growin' Up," and others. And there is a set of heartfelt solo acoustic radio appearances Mac recorded.

But the highlight of the album is the electric recreation of "In the Lines," a song from the brilliant Summer of the Shark--Mac's (mostly) acoustic concept album about Sept. 11th. Here, Mac, brother Matthew, Aaron Oliva, and Zeke Hutchins transform the tune from a lonely meditation on tragedy into a yearning collective cry. "In the Lines" remains the best song yet about post-9/11 America ("Now everyone hangs flags out their window; I've got a white towel, I hope you'll see mine"; "I'm on the train downtown listening for heartbeats underground"). The juiced-up, electric version rendered here is full of guitar atmospherics that ache with loss and a steady beat of renewed faith; it's one little story about a friend the singer can't reach on the phone and a tale about the emotions many of us felt in the aftermath of that day: it's everything the best rock and pop should be.

What Merge's fall line of releases embodies most of all in these days of recalls and messy wars and unemployment is the way post-baby boomers continue to rearrange the history of rock and pop below the surface of corporate American entertainment. The goal here is connected to long-running post-punk urges for a do-it-yourself community. It's a tattered dream from the '90s alt-explosion, of course, but alive and well below Clear Channel-ed frequencies. Indie Rock Nation lives, maintaining the utopian dreams of rock and pop--not as the Woodstockian lost innocence of baby boomers, nor the bling-bling, Real World glamour of the baby-boomlet, but as sustained, small, humble hopes.

The pleasure of Merge Records, and one reason it's lasted when similar local labels have imploded in corporate disarray (Mammoth Records, anyone?), is that Merge is not merely inward-looking (Triangle cult-ure), nor only ambitious for international glory (buy us, Mr. Geffen!), but rather tapped into a network of local-scene nodes (from here to New York to the West Coast to Japan) that allows the label's music to feel both grounded in place and connected to a grander scheme. As bands chime in from near and afar, Merge's fall line of albums reminds us that there still is a secret culture out there percolating below slick media surfaces.

It's local, small business communicating across broad expanses, made with big hearts. And it reaffirms that we can still "believe in rock 'n' roll. " EndBlock

  • A "poppy" fall proves Merge Records still believes in rock 'n' roll

More by Michael J. Kramer

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