by Chris Estey
It was recently announced that Neutral Milk Hotel’s two landmark Merge albums, On Avery Island and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, will be reissued on 180 gram vinyl about a decade after they were first released. The latter achieved apotheosis even beyond the realm of critics and hipsters, becoming ubiquitous in the collections of any thinking music fan’s record collection.
The story behind this music — “a mythology and a dream, full of anachronisms and transmigrations and violations of the laws of nature,” as novelist Joshua Ferris describes it in a sidebar of the gorgeous fan-book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records — makes essential the purchase of the tome alone. Yet editor John Cook (Chicago Tribune, Gawker Media) arrays in often shocking detail the creation of dozens of Merge albums from the viewpoints of bands, label owners, fans, reviewers, heroes, and villians, through oral histories that reveal the real and psychic trenches in which they were produced. Fortunately, there’s a very happy ending, and a rich canon of music Laura Ballance and McCaughan, the label’s founders, can be supremely proud of.
Merge Records was formed by Ballance and Mac McCaughan (“Death Chick and the Caveman”) in an aesthetic for and like their own hard working group, Superchunk. Both the band and indie label has been obdurate in economy and confluent with creativity. Just as major labels devoured and Balkanized the independent music scene of the early-mid 90s, Ballance and McCaughan crafted a unified vision, receiving many painful lessons as they championed pivotal releases from Polvo, Magnetic Fields, Spoon, East River Pipe, Lambchop, Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Camera Obscura, Richard Buckner, et al, and their own musical art.
Floating through this thick, colorful trade paperback history (several hundred B&W and color photos; less than twenty bucks; just out officially this week) you will be entertained by bonhomie-infused descriptions from their early company newsletters, spastically scrawled set-lists, scabrous letters from Steve Albini, faxed questions from Japanese fanzines, turn-downs from bad European distributors, and sparkling remembrances from every angle of the indie music scene. We learn how major labels have rarely been any good for anybody (except maybe getting recovering addict F.M. Cornog of East River Pipe his house before that wing of EMI collapsed and he went back to Merge, that return occuring a lot but usually after very bad luck), that selling decent quantities to people who give a shit beats out “going for the gold” in the mainstream, and may even get you into larger acclaim even with modest intentions (the album Funeral, for example). Thirteen employees strong now, and still putting out records like She & Him which are as noteworthy for the sprightly stories behind them as they are for the high quality of the music, Merge still takes chances. As Mac says, they have just as much committed to the several that sell less than ten thousand as they do to the occasional one that bursts into the one hundred thousand realm.
For many legendary labels, keeping it reasonable and still pushing boundaries would be enough. But the actual testament to their dedication is, in fact, an actual fanzine testament — they love their own bands, and this shows in the presentation of Our Noise. A lot of label-sponsored “art books” have been published before but the graphics in ON are just the (very tasty) icing; the stories are so fucking honest and when you think about the albums they’re discussing — Funeral, 69 Love Songs, all those classics from Spoon and Superchunk, Lambchop’s greatest, even comeback work from the Buzzcocks — you may feel special just being able to read about them.
I have slight criticisms of the book — one, a fanatic’s view in that perhaps the label’s trajectory should have been split into two volumes of this size, considering the incredible amount of music still left uncovered, especially the less popular records on the label — and NLM’s Jeff Mangum should have been throttled for a few quotes. (Typical bitching, right?) AND more photos of Laura when she was wicked little Goth vixen. Hot and scary!
But if there was a national genius grant for independent rock music, Merge should receive it. A label-involved self-tribute will always be suspicious, but it’s no surprise that Merge kicked so much ass when they decided to do one, raising the standards on these books from self-adoration to fun, poised, and lively real engagement with their schemes past, present, and future. Hell of a discography — and yes, a complete one is in here.