As indie rock embraces electronica, Durham's Merge Records quickens its pulse | Music Feature | Indy Week
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As indie rock embraces electronica, Durham's Merge Records quickens its pulse 

Too quick to capture: Caribou

Photo by Jason Evans

Too quick to capture: Caribou

Rock 'n' roll initially rejected Dan Snaith, or at least told the Canadian composer and producer that he couldn't have the band name he'd chosen.

In a fit of pique, "Handsome Dick" Manitoba, the flamboyant frontman of The Dictators, forced Snaith to lose his original stage name, Manitoba. Snaith selected Caribou as his alternate and at least so far, no wildlife have responded with cease-and-desist orders of their own.

At the time of the legally mandated switch, Snaith was in the midst of a move from early efforts in sedate, sample-based IDM to big layers of psychedelia, reminiscent of chemically deranged studio geniuses like Brian Wilson or Phil Spector. When Andorra, the follow-up to Caribou's subtly noisy, steady 2005 record The Milk of Human Kindness, arrived in 2007 with the imprimatur of Durham indie rock institution Merge Records, the move didn't seem so jarring.

"We didn't sign Caribou as a way to have a different kind of music on Merge. When I heard Andorra, it reminded me of '60s pop," says Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan, who has made the sort of music more typically associated with the label through Superchunk and Portastatic. "It didn't feel like branching out that much. It's not really something that we take too much into consideration, anyway."

But Caribou's subsequent evolution while on Merge has been rather drastic. Snaith's regular European DJ gigs and the close observation of dance-floor triggers they afforded deeply informed 2010's Swim. "Odessa" held tight to the gentle melody of his previous work, though its low-end rippled with a concussive 4/4 thump. The shift transformed his sound from late-night headphones fodder to something best heard in a physical space, a club where the bass could boom.

This year's Our Love is a more recognizably human dance record, integrating Snaith's high, whispering melodies with a mechanic precision meant to move a crowd. Between those albums, Snaith issued Jaiolong, credited to his side-project Daphni, the purest piece of dance music Merge has issued in its first quarter-century. Snaith's pupils are wide with a premium techno buzz.

Caribou isn't the only Merge roster artist to rush from straight-up guitar rock. Kaputt, a modern masterpiece from Dan Bejar's Destroyer, took his sound past the ever-cool glam-rock rush of his earliest records to re-examine sax solos, precise female backing vocals and the songcraft beneath the coke bloat of Roxy Music's later studio excess. This year, Wye Oak released the synth-built Shriek, for which revered guitarist Jen Wasner mostly closeted the axe so essential for the band's breakthrough. Merge has also released material from Flock of Dimes, another Wasner vehicle that drives deeper still into experimental pop. Like Snaith's Daphni, Flock of Dimes reveals a desire to move more from the indie-rock canon, under the aegis of the label that helped establish it.

In fact, such gradual diversification has become commonfold within many of guitar-based indie rock's 1990s strongholds. Domino, a British label created by Laurence Bell in 1993 to fight Britpop's slickness with the rougher sounds of American lo-fi, now releases mercurial pop from Dev Hynes' Blood Orange, the trembling R&B deconstructions of How to Dress Well and the calm ambient techno made by Jon Hopkins. Famed home of Pavement, Guided by Voices and Cat Power, Matador issued Darkside's darkly textured, producer-driven Psychic in 2013. The bedrock of Secretly Canadian may forever remain bands like The War on Drugs and bards like Damien Jurado, but in recent years, it's welcomed Swedish electropop playthings jj and world-beat plunderers Major Lazer to the fold. In the last decade, influential 2000s upstarts like XL or DFA, where the ratio is entirely reversed, joined the ranks of those independent stalwarts. For those imprints, dance or pop music is the rule, a token rock band the exception.

The suggestion that the Web has warped listening habits and weakened diehard genre affiliations among young music fans is a common one. Some hold it's the root cause of rock's still waning influence. McCaughan is reluctant to call genre-bending a unique aspect of Internet-driven modernity, let alone the thing making his artists flee their six-strings.

"[Shriek and Kaputt] are different than those artists' other records, but the record before Kaputt was different than the one before it," he says. "I don't think bands incorporating new stuff into their music now is that big of a change from what bands have always done, especially in the independent world where you kind of have the freedom to do what you want."

He notes that unexpected genre juxtapositions predate Wi-Fi, of course: "One artist, for instance, who has been really influential on Merge artists like The Arcade Fire has been Talking Heads. By the time you get to the second and third record, they're doing things that must have felt super radical at the time."

Merge has attempted to move beyond the standard indie rock domain for decades, McCaughan insists. He cites Matt Elliott's cut-and-paste, sound-collage project Third Eye Foundation as an example of Merge's long-standing willingness to wander. But the stereotypes of the label and its ilk proved self-perpetuating for a while. In the '90s, when he reached out to acts associated with largely electronic labels in Europe, they'd often opt for an alternate American route. Merge might not be the first outlet their prospective stateside fans would have pursued.

Committing to artists instead of trends can go the other way, too. "When we signed The Magnetic Fields, I thought they were going to be an electro-pop band, because the records they'd made up to that point reminded me of Yaz, which I loved," he says. "And then the first record they delivered to us was The Charm of the Highway Strip. So, even that was a left turn compared to what we expected from them."

Still, can the wide popularity of an act like Caribou in indie circles that once snubbed house and disco music as a matter of course be entirely arbitrary? The blog era, the idea of Poptimism, the dropped barrier to satisfying curiosity with a stray mouse click: It all must have moved the center of the underground to some degree, right?

"It's maybe more wide open now. People maybe get exposed to stuff they wouldn't have been exposed to before and learn that they like a broader range of things," says McCaughan. "We work with artists that we like. If they happen to be making dance music, that's cool, too."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Metric system."

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