The music industry necessitates an empire of self-help.
For every band signed to a major label or booked on an arena tour, innumerable hopefuls lurk in every direction, hoping that their songs and some marketing strategy might put their music in front of more people. Everyone has an experience to share on the subject, some brush with fame or fall from grace that they hope might help the neophyte. Advice on how and how not to succeed, then, fills books and videos, online message boards and magazines. Anecdotes and fortuity become gospel, and failure forms precepts: Don't play too many gigs in your hometown, for instance, or don't sign away your publishing rights.
This industry of advice exists largely because the idea of being in a band that finds fortune and fame (or simple sustainability) recalls those statistics about the probability of a high school athlete someday turning pro: Don't bet on it unless you like to lose bets, and always have a backup plan.
But during the last decade, the music scene of North Carolina has produced an impressive number of acts with the ability to, in effect, go pro. From the amphitheater-filling country insurgency of The Avett Brothers to the sophisticated pop-rock of The Old Ceremony, from the abstruse metal morphs of Horseback to the perseverant ballads of Tift Merritt, several of these musicians have become, if not superstars, capable of supporting families mostly by playing music. For those yet to cross it, that's a sacred and seemingly secret threshold.
Admittedly, it has not worked for everyone. Many of the area bands that so often seemed on the verge of widespread attention during the last several years, such as Hammer No More the Fingers or Whatever Brains, have yet to land the kind of big break that would turn their albums into careers.
More telling still are those who have squandered their major opportunities—sometimes for reasons beyond their control, sometimes from what seems like a lack of motivation, sometimes because it's just time for a break. This week, three of those groups—Annuals and their Byzantine rock, The Love Language and their keening soul-pop, Bombadil and their dervish folk—celebrate the release of new albums. Collectively, these records illustrate how careerism can go wrong (and right again) for bands seemingly on the verge of breakout success. To be reductive, these three bands could be famous by now; instead, they're either scrambling to recover the momentum they've lost or, mercifully, giving up the quest altogether.
Despite having spent a decade together as a band, the Raleigh group Annuals hadn't issued a new album in nearly five years before Time Stamp. The last one, Such Fun, marked Annuals' first and final LP on Canvasback, an imprint of Columbia Records.
They'd plucked the band from the roster of an independent label based on the success of Be He Me, Annuals' kaleidoscopic 2006 debut. Such Fun was supposed to be Annuals' big crossover moment, pushing them from indie rock Internet buzz into mainstream lucre. After all, they'd opened for The Flaming Lips and been touted in endless "band to watch" lists. Their song "Brother" had been a smash in the summer of 2006, and surely with the support of a major label and the right producer, they could make something even bigger.
Instead, Such Fun and its aftermath steadily tore the band apart. Frontman Adam Baker and the rest of Annuals wrestled with producer Jacquire King over how to build songs; Baker preferred to construct tunes piecemeal, with no clear direction of where he was headed. But King wanted only to record thoroughly prepared arrangements, and he had the bona fides of working with Modest Mouse and Tom Waits to proclaim that it worked.
The tension between the band and the producer crept into the album title itself; the process wasn't much fun at all.
But the band pressed on, touring and working on a third album until, finally, they were dropped by Columbia. Such Fun hadn't performed well, and more importantly, musical tides were shifting. Annuals had once fit into a swelling movement of ornate college rock, conveniently dubbed "blog rock," that was steadily falling out of favor. The third album stalled. Keyboardist Anna Spence entered law school. The members started new side projects. Annuals became a secondary concern.
In April, Mike Robinson, Annuals' forever-grinning bassist, sent me a brief message on Facebook: "Told you about this a few weeks back. This is for peeping."
"This" was a link to Time Stamp, the 11-song album Annuals released on that day with little fanfare. Effectively, it ends their career, at least for now.
The band released Time Stamp only on the Internet with no label support, accompanied by a note that, if this didn't revitalize Annuals' reputation, their third record would likely be their last. "The majority of Time Stamp has sat in a near-completed form for almost 18 months," the band wrote. "It's here now, with some measured degree of hope, that people will care enough to see that this might be a last-ditch effort."
Media attention for Time Stamp was mostly local and rather limited. The changing trends of indie rock that had once left Annuals behind had only continued their march. While getting attention for an online-only album had indeed become easier thanks to sites such as Bandcamp, Annuals' oblong mix of soul, rock and country—all spliced with electronics and hyperkinetic production—hadn't entered a renaissance.
Five years before, Rolling Stone had called the band "The Tar Heel State's version of the Arcade Fire" in their "Breaking" feature. But just a week before playing a July 27 show that they'd promised as a CD release party of sorts, Annuals announced that, instead, the gig would be a farewell party. Turns out, they'd been breaking up all along.
Around the same time that Annuals were anointed by Rolling Stone, Stu McLamb moved into the Cary country club home of his parents and began writing and recording new tunes. Thanks to a band breakup and several legal complications, he was a blunderbuss of emotion, howling about explosive love and nocturnal visions. Those tunes turned into a surprise self-titled hit, released on a small Portland, Ore., label. The Love Language's conviction was contagious, earning McLamb's fashion-magazine-ready ensemble marquee billing at South by Southwest and, soon enough, a deal with home base titan Merge Records. Suddenly, The Love Language led the pack of North Carolina groups purportedly destined for national ascendance.
Though the group he'd assembled to tour that debut soon took its leave, McLamb wasted little time putting the new record deal to good use. With producer B.J. Burton, he holed up in a Raleigh studio during a snowstorm and recorded Libraries, a billowing and broad LP that tangled Phil Spector-sized anthems with front parlor sing-alongs, dripping-brow shouts with romantic drift.
Libraries pushed The Love Language in front of their biggest audiences yet; they shared shows with acts such as Phoenix and drew largely positive attention from outlets as big as Spin. It also showed that McLamb's melodic acumen hadn't been some fluke of bedroom home-recording. In essence, Libraries proved McLamb—a handsome, strong-jawed crooner capable of harnessing live-wire punk energy to unapologetic pop tunes—was good enough to write songs and sing them as a career.
If The Love Language seemed eager to take advantage of their new opportunities before the release of Libraries, though, they've seemed almost crippled by them since its positive reception. In 2010, McLamb vowed that his then-current lineup of the band—a quintet featuring his brother Jordan on drums, producer and guitarist Burton, keyboardist Missy Thangs and bassist Justin Rodermond—would surely stick around for the long haul. On the next record, he once told me during a post-show interview, he even planned to let the rest of the group write some songs; The Love Language's sound was now big enough to share.
That didn't last. During the past three years, The Love Language's membership has shuffled through an overly greased revolving door. Named for the downtown Raleigh artist warehouse in which it was recorded (and in which McLamb has occasionally lived), Ruby Red—the new follow-up to Libraries—employs more than 20 people, from most of McLamb's former backing band and veteran sidemen such as Mark Paulson and Mark Simonsen to national whistling champion Tony Woodard and a small ensemble of friends-turned-backup singers. But they largely provide fancy outfits for the gaunt forms beneath, lending mounds of layers to songs that aren't strong enough to support their weight.
Listening to Ruby Red, the word "noncommittal" keeps coming into play, as if the only thing McLamb could commit to about making music in the last three years was that it was now his occupation, that he'd better finish another record. Though these 10 songs range in length from two to four-and-a-half minutes, and though they often sound pleasant enough, they carry the burden of indecision and incompletion, sketches that had to suffice for a simple lack of better options. Opener "Calm Down" is a nervy skitter that only pretends to go somewhere, sailing off into some great instrumental kosmische unknown because it has no other plans. McLamb toys alternately with drum machine anchors and intertwined Abbey Road bombast, but these ideas sound like test runs, preparations for plans that never come. "Golden Age" allows a bloated string prelude to serve as the surrogate for the emotion McLamb hopes to convey, while "Faithbreaker" leaps suddenly from nothing to everything, as if songcraft were simply a matter of stringing together disjointed parts.
But McLamb's past is too accomplished for him to sell that snake oil here; the bulk of these songs are just unfocused and forced, transmissions from someone desperate to put his band's name next to a new catalog number. To date, it really doesn't matter who's in the band whenever they're in the band, of course, because McLamb won't let them or anyone else live inside these songs for too long.
If he could, perhaps Ruby Red might not be so devoid of its own personality. Perhaps the record's tension would revolve around the music and not the musicians who made it. McLamb needed help making these songs stronger. He seems to have received only enabling pats on the back for things not yet finished.
Ruby Red serves as a jarring 2013 misstep for Merge Records, currently enjoying one of their riskiest and most rewarding calendars during the last decade. The Durham label will celebrate the conclusion of its first quarter-century next year, presumably with a massive festival and some commemorative release. But this year, Merge hasn't behaved like an institution battling a quarter-life crisis or out-of-touch senescence. They've successfully dabbled in contemporary alt-country with Mount Moriah and the new Saint Rich, they've ventured into experimental territory with William Tyler's guitar instrumentals, and they've reclaimed teenage ebullience with San Francisco songwriter Mikal Cronin. In the next five months, Merge will issue new music by Superchunk, Richard Buckner and Polvo, an impressive troika especially considering that they'll presumably top The Billboard 200 with a new Arcade Fire LP, too.
But Ruby Red is so dependent upon the sort of lethargic legacy-coasting that Merge has resisted. It's difficult to imagine hearing The Love Language for the first time on Ruby Red and being excited by the band when they themselves seem so very over it.
Excitement has never been a problem for Bombadil, formed in 2005 by new friends at Duke University. Bombadil's enthusiasm sometimes served as a trip wire during the band's salad days. On stage, they'd deliver their happy-sounding songs about sad things with such force that it often felt as if they were lecturing the room. Gradually, the quartet learned to temper that energy, channeling it into interactive sets and involved, ultra-dynamic albums.
When the band announced the 2009 release of Tarpits and Canyonlands, they seemed like a shoo-in for widespread acclaim. The flair of their previous records had slowly won critics over, aided in part by the rise of their similarly earnest labelmates The Avett Brothers. And like The Avetts, they'd toured incessantly, playing shows in front of nearly no one on the West Coast because they had to start somewhere.
Instead of a payoff, that strategy backfired. Guitarist and singer Daniel Michalak lost control of his hands due to neural tension, in which the nerves in his arms began to shorten and cause excruciating pain. Within three months of one another, Michalak and keyboardist Stuart Robinson both quit Bombadil—Michalak because he couldn't function with the pain, Robinson because he couldn't imagine the ways in which the band might ruin him, too. Suddenly, one of North Carolina's best young acts, sitting on one of the year's most magnetic records, was finished.
But the members stayed in touch, convening occasionally to write new tunes or simply to hang out. Drummer James Phillips would fly in from his new home in Oregon to play with the band. Finally, they decided to record again, heading to Portland to record their 11-song return, 2011's All That the Rain Promises. Despite the dour circumstances they'd endured, it was Bombadil at their most playful, delighted to be making music again rather than disappointed in the path that allowed for it.
They even returned to the road, Michalak taking care to preserve his strength and play only what was possible and necessary. And then in Durham last year, the entire group convened with a handful of friends to record Metrics of Affection, a triumphant return that makes the momentum of their second attempt at band life newly urgent.
They harmonize over a khaki-colored rap verse, fantasize about life as cats, explore West African guitar music and refashion their folk influences as primitive electropop. The experiments are not entirely successful, but the band responsible for them is entirely adventurous, too given with the joy of being here to be concerned with cool.
The last tune on Metrics of Affection is called "Thank You." It's a tender piano tune about defeat and survival, Robinson quietly but confidently singing above a fluttering melody and a tapestry of harmonies and drones. He asks for more apologies and better understanding, for loyalty and for honesty. And toward the middle, he states what must now be a credo for a band like Bombadil: "If there's something that you want with all your heart/ That you want so much it's tearing you apart/ Don't try to kill the fire/ It has to go out on its own."
Robinson tried to kill the fire once, he admits, and so Bombadil lingered at the brink of extinction. But no one in the band was actually finished, and that's the true payoff of Metrics of Affection—a band resurrecting itself to try everything they've never tried.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Anointed and disappointed."