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V/A - Old Enough To Know Better

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Artist: V/A

Album: Old Enough To Know Better

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 9, 2004


Formed in 1989 by Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance of Superchunk, Merge was initially a small Chapel Hill indie-punk label. It released mostly loud, noisy guitar rock by Mac and Laura's band, plus a few local groups they were friendly with. Due to a welcoming atmosphere towards musicians, and a refreshingly catholic approach to band choices, Merge soon found itself at the forefront of the underground, putting out tons of records that helped to define what indie rock was all about: a sense of community, innovation over production values, and an optimistic approach to punk's ideals. Fifteen years on, and Merge is now the happy, smiling face of a world it helped to create. And while the Magnetic Fields may have jumped to a major, it's perhaps unwise to assume that Merge (or indie rock) is past its prime.

Consider that Merge put out the Magnetic Fields' smash 69 Love Songs and recently signed the Buzzcocks and Lou Barlow, and you'll get an idea of where independent labels are going. Like New York's Matador, Merge has grown into the position to release ambitious projects by influential musicians still capable of exciting work. Independent labels are no longer doomed to break new bands only to have them poached by the majors. If the early days of independent music were about building networks and creating viable financial structures, the future may involve a steadily expanding base of labels and listeners capable of supporting bands on a level that the majors don't or won't understand. And with the big labels steadily falling apart, outfits like Merge could conceivably redefine what "independent" music is capable of.

In Merge's case, the label has always been about providing a place where good bands will be supported and given the space to explore their ideas, in relative freedom from harsh economic demands. A simple, potentially na´ve ideology, but it's easy to find other labels and bands who check similar values at the first sign of financial opportunity. This kind of fundamental consistency isn't particularly sexy, but it stands for something, and the quality of Merge's recent output (and the label's continued solvency) makes its own point.

I once read a Superchunk review that described the band's sound as "stadium rock in a basement", which is how I've always thought of indie rock. Powerful, direct, and unconcerned with how the world at large felt about it, populist even though it exists among a relatively small audience. It's not so long ago that a band "failed" if it didn't have radio hits and sell out Dodger Stadium. Indie rock successfully recontextualized underground music, simultaneously embracing punk's defiance and popular music's yearning for community. Bands of the sort that ended up on Merge showed us what a great group could do, and that a show in front of 50 screaming people meant just as much, if not more, than U2's laser show and the alienating experience of "huge" bands. At Maxwell's, I saw a Magnetic Fields performance where Stephin Merritt jumped off stage, mic in hand, and proceeded to sing perched atop a bar stool, which he would move around the room every few seconds, momentarily disappearing before popping up again. It was both hilarious and heartfelt, a perfect little moment in a club in New Jersey.

Those feelings are encapsulated on Old Enough To Know Better, a three-disc set of Merge's best and brightest songs, a massive, sprawling testament to the last 15 years. If you lived through the early years represented on the compilation, then the strains of the Magnetic Fields' "Long Vermont Roads" or Spent's "Excuse Me While I Drink Myself To Death" will surely send shivers down your spine. For those wishing to dip a toe in Merge's waters, the collection also offers a fine starting point, covering nearly the whole history of the label's output.

Will Merge still be relevant in another 15 years? It's hard to say, especially since whatever it is that we know as "indie rock" has changed dramatically in the last decade. Independent bands are making greater commercial inroads, and everyone from the middle-aged Sonic Youth to the teens of Black Eyes are making great records. No one can agree on any one sound, every other dude with a guitar and a sampler is forming a band, and people are constantly sifting through vinyl stacks for new reference points. In other words, music is exciting, messy, and fun again, and Merge is a large part of that equation. Are the bands now as good as the bands then? Who knows? In 1989, very few people would have championed lo-fi electro-pop and melodic garage rock, but Merge did, and we're all the better for it. It's a very different label now, with new bands that sound nothing like what Merge produced in its infancy, which is no doubt a good thing, whether you like every band on the label or not. It means they're still taking risks, challenging their fans, and (hopefully) gearing up for that great 30-year anniversary comp.

By Jason Dungan

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