No matter how faithfully its co-founders have stuck to their sign-who-you-like philosophy, Merge Records is no longer a scrappy little imprint. Rather, approaching age 25, Merge is the sort of large indie label that boasts Grammy winners, chart toppers and sitcom stars, and premieres tracks on The Wall Street Journal instead of under-the-radar music blogs. A Merge deal is a big deal.
Earlier this year, Merge signed Raleigh punk upstarts Barren Girls; to call it a surprise would be an understatement. At the time, Barren Girls were barely a year old. They had a different name, Lazy Janes, and a different lineup. The record deal stemmed from the young band's performance at the Hopscotch Music Festival, where they impressed Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan with a drunken set they barely remembered.
"I guess it couldn't have been that bad," frontwoman Carla Wolff later told Papermag, "considering Mac liked it."
Indeed, McCaughan liked it enough for Merge to release the band's debut, Hell Hymns, a four-song EP recorded into a four-track console. Had Merge not popped in, these songs would likely have been self-released as a demo cassette. Perhaps these recordings might fare better in such a no-pressure setting.
In its formative years, Merge released low-budget singles by local punk bands like Superchunk, Erectus Monotone and Angels of Epistemology. By then, of course, hardcore had passed its prime, so many of Merge's earliest records pressed well beyond punk's foundation to help establish the aesthetic of then-young indie rock.
Barren Girls, meanwhile, are comfortable reviving early '80s death rock—visually and musically. In press photos shot in cemeteries and dark alleys, Wolff and her bandmates—bassist Fran Araya, drummer Ashley Van Eijk and keyboardist Jenny Williams—pose in traditional goth-punk garb of black clothes and spiked accessories, hair teased and colored. They're a far cry from "adorkable" labelmate Zooey Deschanel or the supposed nonchalance of indie rock non-fashion.
Hell Hymns is every bit a punk record: Made with Van Eijk on bass and drummer Emily Acuna, the EP preserves the rookie band's steady first steps. Wolff's ragged guitar chords lead the charge, buttressed by Williams' powerful organ. The clearest point of reference is the dark Seattle garage band Murder City Devils, though Wolff's raw howls evoke goth-punk icon Dinah Cancer of 45 Grave. Any of these four cuts would've fit snugly into the cult favorite Return of the Living Dead soundtrack, alongside T.S.O.L. and The Flesheaters.
In less than two minutes, "Alter Ego" adapts a creeping keyboard phrase to blitz-tempo punk, forcing the atmosphere of bands like Christian Death into a hardcore mold. "She Devil," the band's longest song at three and a half minutes, feels culled from mid-tempo Misfits cuts like "Theme for a Jackal" and "Come Back." The EP's clear standout is "How Could You," where a tugging undertow of bass and keys builds suspense while Wolff's revenge narrative takes shape.
But this remains a young band's demo tape, pushed onto a rather major stage by a big label. Despite its bounty of promise, these songs could become more forceful given a proper studio treatment or a more stable and road-tested band. The black-sheep backstory risks overshadowing these tunes, and that's unfortunate—Hell Hymns showcases a band with remarkable intrigue and promise.
Superchunk, the long-running band of Merge co-owners McCaughan and Laura Ballance, has recently seemed prone to punk nostalgia, covering the Misfits and Neon Christ tunes and preparing a 7-inch inspired by the legendary Void/Faith split. Given such activity, it's obvious why McCaughan would've liked and signed Barren Girls. It remains to be seen, however, if Merge's indie rock audience will also embrace a still-developing punk group, pushed prematurely into the spotlight.
(Label: Merge Records)