On a Tuesday morning in mid-September 2001, the twin towers of Merge Records bid adieu. For more than a decade, the tightly wound-and-bound guitars of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur had stood high above many of their peers. The riffs were tough but magnetic, heavy but hooky, and served as the foundation upon which Merge had built its budding empire.
Of Merge's first 100 releases, 15 were Superchunk records. Of the second 100, 11. And on 9/18, as many of the label's zealots call the day Merge changed forever, Superchunk released the aptly titled Here's to Shutting Up (MRG 201), the band's last album. The flagship had all but fallen.
Here's to Shutting Up is a smart, 10-song collection recorded by Wilco/ Slint producer Brian Paulson, not one of the hard rock aborigines—Steve Albini and John Reis, for instance—with whom Superchunk had previously worked. With Chicago art-rock genius Jim O'Rourke on 1999's Come Pick Me Up, Superchunk had already broadened its sound, but Here's to Shutting Up jumped forward with both feet, largely substituting texture for charge, arrangement for aggression. The guitars were still there, but they had gone soft and acoustic. There were keyboard fills and solos, harmonies more complex than three plebe-voiced indie rockers simultaneously singing the same words.
But no one panicked. Rather, Merge simply pressed ahead and prospered in a way few fans would have imagined. In the label's early days, McCaughan and Ballance had hand-delivered boxes of cassettes and 7" vinyl singles to Schoolkids Records. But during the last eight years—or about 150 releases—Merge has pushed The Arcade Fire and Spoon onto Saturday Night Live and their albums into Billboard's Top 10. The label has released remix records and signed a band featuring Zooey Deschanel, a beautiful Los Angeles actress who sings with the grace and innocence of an early Phil Spector acolyte. Merge successfully moved into different media—books, DVDs, digital-only releases—and reissued the seminal early works of some of the label's forefathers, like Dinosaur Jr. and Big Dipper.
Since Here's to Shutting Up, Merge's signal has only grown stronger, rendering a local label that now competes with, and often wins against, the same behemoths that failed to woo Superchunk a decade prior. Yet, in spite of its success, Merge has never forgotten its pre-9/18 ideals.
Throughout the last 20 years, Merge has offered its artists the loyalty of devoted parents, sticking with them even when the public or the critics chided the bands' records. Both in his first band, Butterglory and on his gorgeous solo record Golden Days Before the End, songwriter Matt Suggs never met his or Merge's sales hopes. In 2003, Merge released his second solo outing, Amigo Row, to similarly deflated numbers. Three years later, the label issued his concept-rock, all-star band, White Whale, to significant critical acclaim but, again, insignificant sales. Instead of liquidating Suggs, Laura Ballance still calls him one of her favorite songwriters and Merge artists.
And then there's Lambchop, the brilliantly broken country-soul-pop big band from Nashville that's been releasing foul-mouthed gems on Merge since the brilliant 1994 B-side, "Moody Fucker." It's safe to bet that Lambchop will never appear on Saturday Night Live (though "Your Fucking Sunny Day" seems now a precursor of "Dick in a Box"), but Merge allowed the band to release two albums in 2004 on the same day, Guns N' Roses-style. An experimental electronic EP and an outtakes compilation followed. Even though the band subsequently made two of its most nuanced LPs, Damaged and OH (Ohio), Lambchop's sales are a reminder that, in the end, it's not the size or stamina of a band that counts.
So Merge isn't built of get-rich-quick schemes. Rather, it works through long-lasting dedication to a band that's forever treated trends and predictability as anathema, producing a string of sterling and often anachronistic—if chronically underlauded—records because of it.
That same dogged allegiance did pay off for Merge, though, landing its black-and-white insignia upon the backs of a handful of the decade's freshest, most vibrant rock records. Consider, for instance, Destroyer. Merge signed the band—essentially, Vancouver songwriter Dan Bejar and whoever his current collaborators happen to be—after he had released three records for tiny labels and one for young American indie, Misra. Bejar's previous output had suggested audacity and flair, as he herded his tumbles of words into rock-act outfits. As McCaughan admits, Merge was drawn to Bejar's dense, succinct cuts.
Bejar responded to his new home like Shaquille O' Neal responded to the Los Angeles Lakers—a talented player who's finally landed with the teammates he'll take to consecutive championships. Indeed, Bejar's mostly perfect and peerless Merge output—four LPs and three EPs—embodies an incredible leap of artistry, as Bejar didn't meet any opposition in using this new platform to cast his songs against bigger canvases.
"This Night," the opener and title cut from his Merge debut, is a six-minute piano-and-drums romp that delights in lyrical possibilities: "Wildcats, you were supposed to go wild/ Butchers, you shouldn't be obsessed with a child/ Now Diorama Pete thinks he just sunk the fleet," he opines over sailing guitars, his voice bounding with new urgency and élan.
Bejar broke from his own form again with Your Blues, a more compact album than This Night but, more important, one that largely substituted the guitar, drums and bass of his past with MIDI keyboards (essentially, a computer input played like a piano that then controls the output of a computer). So much for those twin towers of guitars, right?
Merge loved the record. In fact, five years ago, McCaughan sported an Your Blues T-shirt on the cover of the Independent Weekly. In a way, Bejar, like Superchunk had done before, had gone wild, and the people writing his paychecks were encouraging it.
Upon returning to rockdom in 2006 for Destroyer's Rubies, the epic grandeur of those keyboards had pleasantly affected his sense of song. He worked with a new deference to big statements, turning Rubies and its follow-up, Trouble in Dreams, into his best work. Exhausting and exhilarating, rich on references, enormous sounds and the same vocal energy he offered originally, Bejar's most recent records feel like the work of an auteur unafraid of risks and failure. Had Merge winced at the sound of Your Blues, one assumes, Bejar's swift, definitive progression to this brazen work might have been stunted, or worse.
Raleigh's The Rosebuds have forever moved within Merge with similar freedom. One of the few locals currently calling Merge home, the married duo of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp burst through the label's esteemed roster with The Rosebuds Make Out. The generally ebullient, guitar-led pop-rock spree treated rock's most basic elements—girls, parties, guitars, record stores—with the glee of a 13-year-old spending a summer away from home. It was somewhat simple and completely charming. "Never grow up," you wanted to tell them.
The record's slow numbers had suggested a creeping romantic darkness, though, and over the course of their next three records, The Rosebuds progressively pulled the curtains. Birds Make Good Neighbors was a country-flecked slow burner, Howard's graceful Southern croon smeared over jangling guitars and shuffling rhythms like homespun butter over cooling biscuits. He sang about wildcats, boxcars, leaves and love. Night of the Furies pushed back hard, its retro beats and dark-wave countenance turning real-life woes into propulsive dance numbers. "Get Up Get Out," the record's addictive first single, was both a dance tune and a confession regarding the burdens of relationships. It pushed the Rosebuds to new audiences, and a collection of Furies remixes pushed Merge—all but a stranger to electronic music—to the same. The band effectively dictated its image and, to an extent, that of its label.
Such a bottom-up arrangement—where the artists power the brand—is a central reason that Merge's biggest stars, like The Arcade Fire, Spoon and M. Ward, haven't been lured from the small homegrown institution that still calls Durham home by major labels with (despite what you might've heard) still-swollen coffers. It's easy to imagine Ward's songs being recast into adult-contemporary radio bait. They drift and sway through a heritage of folk, pop and soul, their muted hooks sighing just enough so that you can sing over them. These songs could be huge. Instead of working to reinvent his sound or his audience, though, Ward has simply refined his work during his six years on Merge, sharpening his songs while maintaining the same vaguely outsider aesthetic he's always had.
Likewise, Spoon's spare classic pop has only grown sharper, and The Arcade Fire's glowing arena rock landscapes have only grown brighter. And they've done so by working with a small operation that's been too busy busying itself with the proper business of a record label—finding great songs, putting them into the world, doing it again—to tell bands how to change their sound.
After all, eight years ago, McCaughan and Ballance and their little band, Superchunk, proclaimed that they didn't have to sound any one way at all. Example set, they shut up and let Merge roar.