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Better Than: Seeing Morrissey live, probably
When Tampa, Florida-based post-punk outfit Merchandise released Children of Desire in 2012, it was not only a break out, but a break from the hardcore scene they’d grown up in. A lot of that shift was evident in their revamped sound, more indebted to new wave and pop influences, with crooner Carson Cox often compared to none other than Morrissey. Specifically, the lyrics from “Become What You Are” left little doubt that the band was tired of operating within the same old punk tropes. “The music started/I realized it was all a lie/The guitars were ringing out/Last year’s punk,” Cox sang, earnestly narrating his breakup with the entirety of the genre in the following verses.
Initially a project bound to the studio for its lack of a drummer, Cox, guitarist Dave Vassalotti, and bassist Patrick Brady spent the better part of the ensuing years touring, released Totale Nite in 2013, and signed to 4AD for their latest offering, After the End. In many ways, it’s a culmination of everything Merchandise have been working toward, and with the permanent inclusion of Elsner Nino behind the kit, they’re exploring new territories; in addition to some more contemplative numbers alongside upbeat pop-rock, there’s even a waltz.
“The band has always been about evolution and just building toward something new, and I think this is the furthest we’ve taken it,” Vassalotti told us. “Out of all the records it seems like all the ones we made before were building up to this. Like now we’re a real-deal, full live band, which we had never been on any of the previous records.” At Music Hall of Williamsburg, their power as a newly minted five-piece (Chris Horn fills in on rhythm guitar) gave their truculent pop its backbone. Confidence, too, has made a huge difference, and it’s clear that the shift from playing basements and warehouses to headlining shows in proper venues only serves to validate the leaps they’ve made as songwriters. Vassalotti wrote nearly half the songs on the record and says of the transformation, “We’ve gotten better at playing our instruments, and we take our songwriting seriously, so we want people to be able to hear what our ideas are.”
On stage, those ideas saw them incorporate the sort of jagged guitar parts that arced through their longform tracks on earlier releases into more straightforward songs like “Enemy.” Though they played their first four songs in the exact order they appear on After the End, the band’s verve propelled mellower tracks like “True Monument” with a tangible urgency, which Vassalotti described as a primary tenet of translating these songs for the tour. “Live, we’re a pretty aggressive, loud band still, even with the more low-key material on the record,” he observed. Playing these songs faithfully but with amped gusto, their live iterations are given yet more credence by Cox’s profound vocal ability. Embellished by occasional wailing tangents, Cox has never sounded more plaintive nor more bold.
No matter how drastically their craft has changed, Merchandise never set aside their DIY principles, opting to record and produce After the End by themselves in the Tampa residence they all share. Their new label stepped in only when the band sought Gareth Jones to mix it. “We would not have been able to do that without 4AD, and that ultimately made the record sound the way it does,” said Vassalotti. “They just have so many resources we wouldn’t have had otherwise.” 4AD has been instrumental in taking staunchly self-reliant artists under its wing and helping them produce breakout works, records that are the fullest realization of that artist’s potential. That’s happened with Ariel Pink and Bradford Cox and Future Islands and tUnE-yArDs, and now it’s happening again with Merchandise.
As rapidly as they have evolved in terms of songwriting, it seems to be taking fans a little while to catch up. The biggest reaction from the crowd came for “Time,” though that enthusiasm lasted well into the sauntering verses of “Telephone” immediately following; the one-two punch of those songs back to back was indeed the high point of the show. Surprisingly, they also debuted a new song, telling of the fact that Merchandise will always be the restless sort, ready to move on to the next thing. “Once we’re done with this big three-month tour, we’ll have a few little trips here and there early next year,” Vassalotti promised, “but we really wanna just start working on the next record, putting even more time and effort into it to make it even better than the last one. We don’t really know what it’ll sound like. It’ll probably be a little bit different.” It’s not hard to imagine that whatever comes next for Merchandise will continue to push the boundaries of what it means to make pop music. And they’ll always have those punk roots to lean on. Toward the end of the set, Cox apologized to the crowd. “We were going to try to learn a Misfits song, but we couldn’t figure it out.”
Critical Bias: After the first time I’d seen them live, in 2012, I went on a tirade about how badly Merchandise needed a drummer. I’m happy to say that Elsner Nino is a killer fit.
Random Notebook Dump: Surprised by the inclusion of “No You and Me” in the set, the heartbreaker from Merchandise’s split EP with Milk Music and Destruction Unit.
No You and Me