Over the past 15 years, Merge Records has established itself as one of the most-respected independent labels in the U.S. The label has put out records from artists in the fields of punk, grunge, alt-country, pop, and other areas. Despite the breadth of styles covered, Merge’s releases have been pretty consistent across the board. For its anniversary, the label is putting out a three-disc compilation of its best music as well as some of its rarities on Old Enough to Know Better: 15 Years of Merge Records. All three discs are enjoyable but, not surprisingly, it’s the labels star bands that really stand out.
The collection opens with one of the best songs by one of Merge’s best groups. Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex” epitomizes the group’s sound on On Avery Island—the guitars are fuzzy, the vocals are clear, and the groove’s catchy. It’s a good choice to open the compilation before moving into Superchunk, which is often described as Merge’s “flagship” act. Superchunk didn’t just provide the label’s first full-length album; its members Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan founded Merge. The group’s selection here, “Cool”, isn’t Superchunk’s best track, but it is a good one, and it sets the tone for the two similar but lesser tracks that follow.
If I’m disappointed by this collection in any way (and it’s only in this way), it’s that the less well-known acts don’t mark their own space here. It’s not that the songs are weak, it’s just that they don’t stack up as well to the more successful bands on Merge. For example, after its opening two tracks, disc one’s finest moments are provided by Lambchop, the Magnetic Fields, Portastatic, and the Buzzcocks. We’re not going to see these bands at the top of the Billboard charts any time soon, but they have made a name for themselves. A genius compilation comes from its ability to establish new acts.
Of course, that’s a mere quibble—the famous bands aren’t any less enjoyable for their fame, and the little guys stand up well (they just don’t stand out). Moreover, if you’re not familiar with these acts, Old Enough to Know Better could be a great introduction. And it is possible for bands to create some space for themselves. With the nicely-crafted “Ivanka”, Imperial Teen use a basic Sonic Youth sensibility to establish tension then hint at a release with a distorted guitar solo before all instruments except drums drop out. As the guitars return with competing vocals, the song builds again to a sudden finish.
While the compilation’s first two discs give an overview of the label’s best music, the third disc seems designed to give a bonus to long-time fans who might be familiar with Merge. The disc contains rarities and tracks especially recorded for Old Enough to Know Better. The big names are here in greater proportion than on the first two discs. For the most part, they deliver tracks that would have been fine on their albums and that deserve a new (or first) issuing. One of the top tracks on this CD comes from one of Merge’s first artists, who haven’t fared as well as the label’s stars. Angels of Epistemology sound great on their “Fiction Romance”. They build the song around a basic riff, but they work around it nicely, and the singer’s somewhat grating vocals drive the song as well as do the guitars. My advice: re-release this track under a new band name.
The collection’s penultimate track, Superchunk’s “Freaks in Charge” could be Merge’s manifesto, assuming that DIY label-makers are freaks, which they would have to be in a sense (a good sense). Old Enough to Know Better closes with an eerie track from David Kilgour, “On the Outside”. He sings, “It’s a fine day for the hopeless / And it’s a fine day for the luckless,” but after listening to the 61 tracks on these three CDs, it’s hard to figure out who he’s talking about: none of these bands appear to be suffering musically and this collection at least holds up under Kilgour’s refrain: “It’s a holiday on the outside.” Kilgour’s track leaves us with a spooky come-down that’s somehow ill-fitting and appropriate for walking out of an anniversary party.