Started by Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk in 1989 as a vehicle to release their own music Merge has moved from small-town record label to one of the most respected and successful indie labels in the world. Based in Durham, North Carolina, and never feeling the urge move to a more “hip” city, Ballance and McCaughan captured an NC Sound at a time when Grunge was taking off in the North-East of the US.
What really makes Merge stand out is their ability to gauge the zeitgeist of what was coming next. Whether it was Arcade Fire’s global domination or Neutral Milk Hotel’s everlasting imprint on Indie, Merge have far exceeded their local origins without turning their backs on them, to the extent that Laura and Mac still handpick every band.
Below is a ten track sampler that exemplifies how Merge really are the tastemakers of great music. Words by James Trotter.
Polvo – Thermal Treasure (Today’s Active Lifestyles, 1993)
Hailing from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Polvo are part of the scene Merge wanted to ensure had an outlet for their music. Polvo released two albums for Merge in the early nineties before returning in 2009 for another stint with the label. Polvo are long credited for inventing the “math rock” genre, a label they have no desire to be associated with, but the dissonant guitar sounds on ‘Thermal Treasure’ give an indication of why they are considered standard bearers for what was to come.
The Magnetic Fields – Born on a Train (The Charm of the Highway Strip, 1994)
The Charm of the Highway Strip was The Magnetic Fields’ first release on Merge. Stephin Merritt’s synth-driven powerhouse made a road album that captures the painful monotony of having to leave everything behind. This is captured perfectly on ‘Born On A Train’ where the drums build to the sound of a train chugging on into the distance, whilst Merritt’s vocals drone of the sound of a man who has been on the road long enough.
Superchunk – Detroit Has A Skyline (Here’s Where the Strings Come In, 1995)
The reason Merge was formed, Superchunk are a band that always operated a DIY attitude and they’ve needed energy to carry it on. This energy is abundant on their fifth release, Here’s Where the Strings Come In, and captured in 2 minutes and 50 seconds on ‘Detroit Has A Skyline’. The evoking of Detroit feels important as the song could be the soundtrack to an accident at the Ford Plant. Nothing is held back as Mac begs his ‘crush’ to meet him again, Jon Wurster absolutely batters the drums, Mac and Laura hold the wreckage together, whilst Jim Wilbur’s guitar work flourishes at the bottom of the crash.
Neutral Milk Hotel – Oh Comely (In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, 1998)
Neutral Milk Hotel were never going to fit in at a major album but luckily Merge were there to give Mangum’s band a home. NMH’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is now revered as an indie classic. Although it far surpasses indie rock with songs like ‘Oh Comely’, a funeral march for something that has been lost. On In the Aeroplane…, Jeff Mangum has weaved together an entire universe and ‘Oh Comely’ is the literary masterpiece of the record. Evocative imagery and a narrative drive that is considered and well-crafted.
Arcade Fire – Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) (Funeral, 2004)
Arcade Fire are undoubtedly the feather in Merge’s cap, and the band themselves said they were swayed by Merge due to NMH’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The influence of Neutral Milk Hotel is prevalent on ‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’ where we have the same eery sense of something being lost but our narrator is less clear. The guitars here clearly evoking the panic of losing power, the twinkling of bells as the sound of snowfall in the street and the moan of vocals indicating “there’s something wrong/in the heart of man”.
Camera Obscura – Lloyd I’m Ready to be Heartbroken (Let’s Get Out of This Country, 2006)
These literary Scots feed into various things throughout Let’s Get Out of This Country. This is no better illustrated than on ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken’ which is their response to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. The organ opener misleads the listener until the full band kicks in with this summery (for Scotland) tune. Traceyanne Campbell’s lyrics here are a turning on the head of the typical break-up song. Her narrator is sick of being held back by this relationship and is ready to forge ahead.
Spoon – Rhythm and Soul (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, 2007)
If Arcade Fire are the feather in Merge’s cap then Spoon are the repurposed cape. Released by Elektra due to not shifting enough units Spoon were picked up and dusted off by Merge. That faith paid off as Spoon have had a number of top 10 albums in the US since. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was the first of these, and remains a favourite of fans and critics. ‘Rhythm and Soul’ captures the blending of indie rock with high concepts showing Spoon are more than a standard guitar band.
Caribou – Odessa (Swim, 2010)
Music producer extraordinaire Dan Snaith’s Caribou sit very much outside the box on the Merge roster. Some might suggest he’d be more at home on a traditionally Dance/Techno label, but Merge have seen Caribou through a 2008 Polaris Music Prize and a breakthrough into the mainstream. On Odessa the lyrics capture the collapse of a woman’s will to stand it out in an abusive relationship, and the repeated refrain “She can say” gives this unnamed woman back a modicum of the power taken from her. The music maintains the tension with a throbbing bass-line throughout but the tension is never really released as the song ends asking the man if knows how ‘over time (he) drove her away’.
Wye Oak – Holy Holy (Civilian, 2011)
This Maryland two-piece captured the attention of Merge after self-releasing their debut album, If Children. Since then they’ve become the darlings of music sites’ Best of year lists, and their music has appeared on TV shows like The Walking Dead. On Holy Holy the drum and guitar kick in straight away as though they are waves crashing in at shore, only for the tide to go back out for the verse. This alongside the lyrics gives the impression of something being lost, the final line as “Oh they will give out” but Jenn Wasner sings it almost as Hallelujah.
Destroyer – Savage Night at the Opera (Kaputt, 2011)
More renowned as the frontman of The New Pornographers, Dan Bejar has been releasing music under the Destroyer moniker since 1996 (and 2002 on Merge). Combining pop with poetic lyrics, Bejar is indulging his own sensibilities whilst lampooning the scene he is part of. This is prevalent on Savage Night at the Opera where Bejar repeats the line “I heard their record, it’s alright” in the tired voice of a scenester trying to keep up.