A Rush of Blood, wherein the pursuit of things I love becomes a stress creating end unto itself, is a 15-minute video that features a series of trippy atmospheric instrumentals accompanied by snippets of film segments that share a Lynchian obsession with the bizarreness and perversity that hides behind the banal facades of everyday life. It’s the kind of thing that most art gallery patrons would nod politely at and profess respect for but few would truly appreciate. Such a film might seem like an oddly affected way to promote the second album of a former hardcore punk band from Tampa but that exactly what Merchandise did. Talking to Pitchfork about moving beyond the local straight-edge punk scene and expanding their influences, lead singer Carson Cox declared “I’m interested in letting whoever do whatever. I feel like punk and art are the same word.” For better or worse, it’s this spirit that defines the sound of the band’s latest album Totale Nite.
The problem with Merchandise isn’t they sound like a former hardcore/emo band from Florida experimenting with interesting and eclectic new sounds; it’s that they sound like they’re trying way too hard to show everyone that that’s what they are. It’s hard not to think that the critical love for 2010’s Children of Desire got to the band’s head a little bit, spurring them to highlight an improbably disparate array of new influences. The press materials proclaim that beyond the obvious punk rock and mopey ‘80s critic fodder, Totale Nite will evoke shades of Roxy Music, Miles Davis, Merle Haggard, Franco Battiato and Boyz II Men. Riiiiight.
This collection of sound (because this is about sound more than songs) has several thrilling moments but it ultimately feels like the band is too hard trying to eschew classification and proclaim its own eclecticism. Keeping such a mixture lush pop soundscapes, rinky-dink drum machines, arty abrasiveness and Morrisey-lite vocals coherent is truly a high-wire balancing act, one that is often interesting but rarely fully-baked. Elements often compete oddly against each other featuring moments where, say, Loggins-worthy lyrics delivered in heartfelt croon clash with a dissonant electrical hum for a sonic assault that’s initially interesting but not generally satisfying. The album’s impenetrable mélange of elements never quite resolves into a coherent finished product. The effect brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s description of modern irony as someone telling you “how banal of you to ask what I really mean.”
Despite their reputation for aggressively noisy music, there’s a hesitancy to Totale Nite that feels nervous and self-conscious. Somehow every element seems mixed to the back with guitars, synths and drum machines all bobbing around without ever really distinguishing themselves. The extended noise sections are full of ideas but lack dynamic appeal with no instruments or musical ideas ever stepping forward to claim a spotlight or offer the listener a focal point. Similarly the lyrics, when audible, seem purposefully vague both in terms of direct and symbolic meaning. Even the record’s brevity (it was originally planned as an EP) reflects a certain lack of conviction. At every step it feels like Cox and his mates were always determined to avoid being pinned down to any concrete ideas or sonic commitments at all costs.
Fortunately, neither bad production nor a pretentious press release does a bad band make. Despite their faults, Merchandise repeatedly proves in snippets that they are capable of creating compelling, fascinating music. The pounding twin textures of burnt out guitar and wailing harmonica make “Who Are You?” a satisfying way to start out the album. The title track also contains some agreeable guitar scraping and distortion before it overstays its welcome. “Aniexty’s Door” is probably the record’s strongest moment, featuring Cox’s most compelling vocal performance behind a propulsive building of a Casio and Fender haze. Even “I’ll Be Gone” manages to throw enough quirks into its utterly cheesy keyboard revelry to keep things interesting.
I’m told that Merchandise is an incredibly compelling live band whose shows are visceral and forceful (and that was before they recently added a full-time drummer), which isn’t surprising given their pedigree and willingness to take chances. There’s nothing wrong with a little pretension and half-baked exploration. After years living by a set of rigid moral strictures both musically and personally, opening yourself to new ideas is an intoxicating experience that seems to demand trying a thousand different things all at once. That kid in high school who just read Noam Chomsky and won’t shut up about it will probably make a few cringe-worthy statements, but they’re made on the path to important ideas. Given their undeniable ability to craft sonic mayhem and their obvious ambition, it’s exciting to think about what might become of Merchandise if they start growing more confident in their musicianship and less obsequious in their critical baiting.