September 2, 2004

Merge Turns 15

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It’s hard to believe that the same state which fuels a small economy’s worth of NASCAR merchandise sales could be the spawning ground for one of rock’s most reliable independent labels. But here we are, celebrating North Carolina-based Merge Records’ fifteenth anniversary. Formed in 1989 by Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan with the intention of creating an outlet for their band Superchunk — as well as those of their friends — Merge has since become home to over fifty bands, a handful of which are among indie rock’s most well-regarded.

Old Enough 2 Know Better is a three-disc collection, the first two of which serve as a retrospective, containing “Merge Classics” from almost every artist who has ever appeared on the label, while the third features rare and unreleased tracks, some of which were recorded exclusively for the compilation.

The first disc is slightly better than the second, although that’s to be expected as it contains more of the label’s big names: Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields, . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, as well as the aforementioned Superchunk. And unless you’re familiar with an overwhelming majority of Merge’s material, songs from the third disc will most likely seem new.

The style most prevalent on Old Enough is harmless yet spirited indie-pop. But many of these acts are unheralded ones such as Butterglory and the 3D’s. Regardless, the material is inoffensive and consistent.

Some bands are more memorable than others. The Ladybug Transistor’s baroque leanings provide a nice contrast to Polvo’s powerful guitar attack, “Tragic Carpet Ride,” another standout. Still, even Merge is not without its duds, as East River Pipe is little more than a Flaming Lips derivative, and The Rock*A*Teens’ “Hwy R” can’t help but remind one of Guided By Voices’ “Smothered in Hugs.” Actually, it should be noted that several bands here borrow heavily from GBV’s trademark four-track sound. Take from that what you will.

The most impressive aspect of this compilation is the admirable job Merge has done at continually signing new artists to keep the label’s quality of output high, in addition to retaining the label’s integrity. Bands like the all-stars from disc one may come and go, but Merge has displayed a skillful ability to sign emerging artists (such as The Clientele) and maintained close ties to some of their more successful artists (such as Spoon). And while the CDs are not in chronological order, none of the bands’ music seems to have aged relative to that of their peers, which is yet another testament to Merge’s consistency.

As the now-four major labels continue to further flex their competitive muscles in the near-oligopoly commonly referred to as “the record industry,” independent labels like Merge (as well as their distribution partner Touch and Go) are becoming a rarer commodity. So it certainly doesn’t hurt when compilations like Old Enough 2 Know Better are released every so often with the intent/result of refreshing our appreciation. Three and a half stars

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer