Monday, September 14, 2009

review: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records by John Cook, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records
The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small

by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

Algonquin, 2009

This story of Merge is just about as much about being non-revolutionary as it is being “revolutionary.” So Merge is about signing bands one album at a time. Merge is about getting bands to stick within a recording budget. Merge is about helping bands fulfill their artistic ideas. Merge is revolutionary for doing sensible business and not flaunting exorbitant money on bands that may or may not make it. And even if you don't care much for their music, you have to appreciate the method.

And what Jonathan Marx of Lambchop says about Superchunk that could also apply to the label: “They weren’t desperate for cash; they weren’t desperate for fame. The only thing they were desperate for was the thing that they were doing.”

That desperation plays out in interesting ways. Superchunk and Merge was essentially formed in the mind of Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, who were dating in the early 90s and then later split. How and why the band and label survived their own personal relationship is a testament to their own integrity—that they believed the label and band was doing something greater than themselves.

But with that in mind, it’s hard to think that until earlier this decade, Ballance and McCaughan still had day jobs. Their myth and legend greatly exceeded their actual finances. And the same could be said for an incredible release like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, which took awhile to grab hold of the nation’s attention.

The book is set as an oral history, and the testimonies given consistently refers to Merge’s desire to wait on artists to percolate and to develop. The most reflective of this is Spoon, who was generally ignored on their major label, Elektra, only to release their breakthrough Girls Can Tell on Merge, where Britt Daniel finally released his inhibitions and incorporated more of a soul sound into his rock sound.

As interviewed by John Cook of Gawker, the stories alternate between Superchunk’s story and certain band stories. Not all bands are included, that would be near impossible, but some bands like M.Ward and Camera Obscura go without a mention at all. But including all of them would be impossible, but including a choice like Butterglory over those shows the commitment of Merge to good music over dollars.

I was also kind of surprised that there was no discussion with Ballance and McCaughan about their transition into the digital age, especially since their long-time distributor Touch and Go recently changed its CD distribution model to just focus on being a label. Another segment on how the world has changed since they began their label would have been a quality addition, just to understand the difficulties and advantages to something like mp3s and the differing world of promotion.

The segment on Arcade Fire gets into it a little bit as they discuss the impact of a Pitchfork review (who has generally been kind to Merge bands from the looks of it) on the band and its lasting impact over something in Rolling Stone. The Arcade Fire was truly a representation in the power of viral word to mouth, on the scale of a pandemic.

Often Merge served as the safehaven from the major labels. Even though Trail of Dead jumped from Merge to Interscope, that was more of an aberration than the rule. But it’s clear at least from the book’s perspective, though Matador, Touch & Go, and Subpop may have something else to add, that Merge has greatly influenced the way indie rock is perceived—or at least their model, ethos and dedication has been copied repeatedly, maybe even moreso than the bands themselves.

Any label, any organization would be honored with a story compilation like this one and the tribute from Ryan Adams at the beginning is almost worth the purchase price. Our Noise is a testament to the label’s combination of good taste and good business sense as well as a demonstration of how good music also depends on a little bit of good luck.

*A portion of this review originally appeared in the September issue of Bootleg Magazine.

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