Presence, absence and Merge Records’ 25th birthday celebration

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We’re still here. 

Not to be too morbid or anything, but isn’t that what milestones are about, at their core?

We shower birthdays and anniversaries with generic celebration terms — about “marking the past year,” as an excuse to get together with friends and family — but the cause that’s being celebrated is, essentially, survival. They’re a chance to take stock of how far we’ve come since the last milestone, how we got there and, sometimes, who might have been lost along the way. And at their best, they’re about the future: a chance to connect with important people in our lives and find all the right reasons to keep pushing on through the next 365 days.

“I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.”

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That lyric is, of course, the most famous chorus that the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has ever written. The song it’s taken from, “This Year,” closed out the Goats’ performance at Merge 25 last Friday night before a sold-out crowd at Carborro, North Carolina’s famous Cats Cradle club. It followed a set I would have readily watched for hours, with material spanning a good portion of Darnielle’s career as a songwriter — from Tallahassee‘s “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” to Transcendental Youth‘s “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1.” The set’s best moment, though, may have been the jaw-droppingly great take “Who You Are” by American Music Club, a Merge artist not at the label’s 25th anniversary celebration. You can hear the band’s take on the song from the Google Play/Merge collection online, and in the room you could have heard a pin drop. It was an imposing, inspiring presence — Darnielle — paying tribute to a notable absence.

American Music Club weren’t the only major Merge act not in North Carolina last week: Arcade Fire and recent Merge departees Spoon weren’t there either, nor were Archers of Loaf, and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt is playing a solo show the week after the fest in nearby Durham rather than being directly a part of it. (That said, the Vertical Scratchers did offer up a charmingly loud cover of Merritt’s “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” on Saturday.) But it’s a testament to the Merge’s immaculate, curatorial taste over the past quarter century that these absences were only noted when someone else drew attention to them. The rest of the time, Merge 25 felt deeply, immediately present.

Over the course of four days and nights — two evenings at the Cat’s Cradle, one at Duke’s Badwin Auditorium and an outdoor festival in the Cradle’s parking lot on Saturday — I got to see 25 different Merge bands perform, and only a couple of the sets warranted a disinterested “meh” from me. Most would have been highlights at any other festival: a rare North American performance by Lampchop, playing 2000’s Nixon song by song; Destroyer’s first full-band set in two years, debuting several awesome-sounding new tracks; the best set I’ve ever seen from Caribou; watching heroic veterans like Reigning Sound and Bob Mould show the kids how it’s done; watching upstarts like Telekinesis, Wye Oak and Mikal Cronin play like the heroic veterans they’ll one day become; discovering local talents with huge potential like Hiss Golden Messenger and Mount Moriah.

None of the performances felt like nostalgia sets (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a bit). Nearly all the bands played new or recent material, often right alongside their minor or major classics. For a band like Teenage Fanclub, whose flawless Saturday afternoon set may have been the best of the weekend, that meant songs like 2010’s “When I Still Have Thee” alongside by iconic tracks like “The Concept” and “Everything Flows.” Similarly, the lineup offered the chance to see bands that had been around for decades alongside an act like opening night after-party headliners Flesh Wounds, a rowdy Stooges-esque punk group who have a single 7-inch out on Merge and whose members I later met working at local record stores and bars.

Old, new, and everything in between, all worthy of celebration. And why not? Against all the music industry odds, Merge Records is still here.

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Four years ago I attended Matador at 21 in Las Vegas, which on the surface seems like a similar affair to Merge 25: an indie label celebrating a key milestone (in Matador’s case, cheekily heading to Vegas at the US drinking age) with a stacked roster of its greatest bands. Matador 21 was, also, quite possibly the best lineup of talent I’ll ever see at a music festival. Its poster hangs framed on my entryway wall, showing it off to everyone who visits my home: I was there.

Matador 21’s vibe was totally different from Merge 25, though, and not just because of the cool/weird “hipsters take over a casino” experience. Two of the festival’s four biggest bands, Pavement and Guided By Voices, were reunions (although the latter has kept recording and performing since) and, though we didn’t know it yet, a third (Sonic Youth) would break up just about a year later. The lineup was filled with other rare or one-time-only performances, and even an artist who’s still something of an ongoing concern like Liz Phair stuck with old hits from her critical heyday. Newer acts like Ted Leo and Fucked Up did their best to fight for currency, but their late-night battle of the bands (a highlight) also spent most of its time diving through the history of punk music.

Don’t get me wrong: it was an amazing experience, maybe my favourite festival ever. As someone who was too young or too uncool for much of 1990s indie rock in its prime, Matador 21 was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many bands I’d missed out on, as well as get a crash course in the ones I didn’t know. But the further I get from that weird, wonderful weekend, the more the whole experience feels more and more like a strange time machine of sorts.

Or, if you will, a tomb.

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I know, I know, I’m bringing up death again — but I’m not the only one thinking about it.

Superchunk is the band that started Merge in the first place, and whose members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballace remain its bosses until this day. If you were to make a case for the most underrated band of the ’90s, you could do a lot worse than Superchunk, who released seven great-to-amazing albums over the course of a decade but never managed a breakthrough hit; their best-known song (“Slack Motherfucker”) was too profane, and attempts to push tracks like “Hyper Enough” to radio stalled. But unlike their peers who played the break-up/make-up game, Superchunk never really went away: after 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, they played sporadically through the 2000s, recorded a few small projects here and there and, with 2010’s Majesty Shredding, picked up right where they left off. The only thing surprising about the album was just how great it was.

Last year’s I Hate Music is even better, though I didn’t think so the first time I heard it. It lacked Shredding‘s “holy shit, how is this comeback record so good?” novelty, and it’s not as catchy an album either. But I’ve kept coming back to I Hate Music over and over the past year, to the point where I’d now consider it my favourite Superchunk album, hands down. The album’s power comes from the fact that it’s all about death: nearly every song touches upon absence, in some way, often in blunt, brutal fashion, but delivered with Superchunk’s classic “it sucks but we’re still singing along” attitude. It opens with McCaughan singing, “Everything the dead don’t know piles up like magazines, overflows” and closes with “every day I want to ask you, but I can’t ask you…what can we do?” The album’s title is taken from the song “Me & You & Jackie Mitto,” which finds McCaughan turning even against his greatest love: “I hate music, what it is worth? Can’t bring anyone back to this earth, or fill in the space between all of the notes, but I’ve got nothing else so I guess here we go…”

Here we go, indeed: Superchunk closed out Merge 25’s second night with a most worthy headlining set, one that played to so many of the band’s punish strengths (and included a great cover of Sebdoah’s “Brand New Love”). But, fun as it was, I was struck most by I Hate Music songs like “Low F” or similarly sad, powerful songs like 2012 single “This Summer.” They’re still anthems, but they ache with age, absence and the best, most wistful sort of nostalgia. Near the end of the main set, McCaughan stopped to note who was there — and who wasn’t. He meant, in one sense, Ballace, who wasn’t on stage due to a hearing condition that’s kept her from playing live with the band. But he may also have been referring to long-time friend Dave Doernberg, who passed away in 2012 and presumably inspired a great many of the songs on I Hate Music. But then McCaughan turned the speech into an impassioned plea for living in the moment: “We’re only 25,” he said, of his label. “We’re still young… we can still make bad decisions.”

I wasn’t taking notes, but if he also said “we’re still here,” it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit.

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Superchunk weren’t Merge 25’s ultimate headliners, though. That honour went to a band whose mere presence at such a festival would have been a total shock just a few years ago, but which now seemed rather ordinary.

Jeff Mangum, after all, used to be indie rock’s J.D. Salinger, its most infamous recluse. His disappearance immediately after the release of his masterpiece, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is the stuff of legend. For more than a decade, fans like me wondered where he might be; hell, my own home province, Nova Scotia was one of the locales where he was rumoured to be resting his head during his 12-year absence. Now, there’s no rumours, no wondering: following a two-year series of solo tours, he’s now reunited with the full Neutral Milk Hotel lineup and playing nearly all of the big gigs on the festival circuit. There’s no new material to perform, no real surprises — simply the classics from Aeroplane and On Avery Island, with a couple of b-sides for good measure.

Few bands have been as defined by absence as Neutral Milk Hotel, and not just because of Mangum’s disappearance. Their best songs feel deeply haunted, with the past and present blurring together in an abstract, physical, sexual haze. Aeroplane is famously shaped around the story of Anne Frank, whose tale deeply moved Mangum and informs a great number of the album’s songs. Their best performances at Merge 25 played to this ghostly sensibility: a powerful “Oh Comely,” a beautifully unsettling “Little Birds.”

But unlike Mangum’s solo performances, which felt like spiritual experiences, this was a noisy, rollicking affair, where the presence of a real, live band often hurt his haunted songs more than it helped. Neutral Milk Hotel’s drummer is (to put it politely) sporadic in his tempos, often missing beats and speeding and slowing songs without warning, and the rest of the band often opts for a kitchen-sink approach to sound. It was fuzzy, immediate but instead of some semblance of order, chaos reigned. This, admittedly, has always been the case — the band was legendarily messy live in the 1990s as well — but it’s in marked contrast to the sound precision that marks Mangum’s recordings, the way most of us have experienced these songs over the years.

But at least he was there. All around the Cat’s Cradle parking lot, rapturous fans had the opportunity to sing along to their favourite songs with a singer, and a band, who many thought they’d never get to see in person. The man of absence had become a man of presence. And like everyone else, he saluted the label who helped make it all possible: “Seriously, a record label can really fuck you,” said Mangum. “Merge doesn’t want to fuck you. They’ve been such a good home for us all these years.”

The week was a giant Merge love-fest, and why wouldn’t it be? The label’s track record in picking bands remains top-shelf but, just as importantly, they made everyone feel like home for the week — even those of us who don’t have a record deal. From supporting the fan-organized kickball tournament (which my team won via a tiebreaking rock/paper/scissors); to selecting vendors offering cheap beer and free (free!) iced coffee; to providing one of the most comfortable, laid-back atmospheres possible at a festival; to Ballance personally wandering the parking lot at the outdoor show, handing out earplugs in full-on “Merge mom” mode; to McCaughan standing there at the front of nearly every show in full-on fan mode — Merge made everyone feel immensely welcome, immediate and present. It was like we were celebrating not just Merge’s relationship with indie rock, but our own: the bands who’ve found their way into our lives and who are still fighting and earning their presence within it.

They’re still here. We’re still here.

 

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