Toy, the fourth LP from A Giant Dog and their second for Merge, shows the Austin quintet at the height of their powers. A solid year of road-dogging and woodshedding has made the band tighter than ever, the charging dynamo of Andrew Cashen and Andy Bauer's guitars in lockstep with the primal chug of the rhythm section Graham Low on bass and the recorded debut of Daniel Blanchard on drums. Singer Sabrina Ellis turns in another masterful performance, in equal parts brash, defiant, vulnerable, and raw. The band recorded Toy with Grammy-winning engineer Stuart Sikes (Loretta Lynn, Cat Power, The White Stripes, Reigning Sound), and singer/songwriter/guitarist/wildman Cashen produced it. "Andrew as producer makes a lot of sense," Sabrina says. "He composes the songs and knows better than anyone what they should sound like in the end. With him at the helm, we've arrived at a raw, truthful, risky, and rangey album." Toy is also sonically huge, pulling from a range of influences as diverse as Tinariwen and Thin Lizzy.
North Carolina's Benji Hughes fronted a rock band in the nineties. He's written commercial jingle. He's made music for film and television (Walk Hard, Eastbound & Down). He released 2008's A Love Extreme, his excellent double-LP debut record. But these ventures aren't different hats Hughes wears. They're not different paths traveled. This is Hughes playing in different keys.
Now, for his first full-length on Merge, Benji Hughes is playing Songs in the Key of Animals. Recorded over two years mostly at Frisbie studios in New York, the record is 41 minutes of pop-music exploration. The album has a summertime immediacy but an evergreen resonance (see "Longshot"). It's clever but too deep for punchlines (check the excellent back and forth of "Picnic"). It is sincere ("Girls Love Shoes") yet heartbreaking ("Song for Nancy"). It's eccentric but never forced in its strangeness. It's the kind of record that reminds us music can be fun without being empty. It's an album full of peacocks and sharks and zebras and tigers, but ultimately, it's about us. "People are animals," Hughes says, "even if some people don't want to admit it." Songs in the Key of Animals taps into something beyond just intellect or trend or taste. It's all about the feel, the connection between the player, the music, and the listener.
There's an old saying about how "you have your whole life to write your first record." For Coco Hames, the songs on her stunning self-titled debut poured from her pen over a sustained burst of inspiration... but they took more than a decade to live out. A deeply personal record filled with poignant ruminations on love lost and found, dreams dashed then rediscovered, these ten songs manage to pinpoint exquisite light amid life’s darkness. As the frontwoman and indomitable force behind beloved garage-pop combo The Ettes, Hames blazed a memorable trail across the '00s underground. Last summer, she began work on her solo album at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville. "It was this massive leap of faith for me," she admits. "After being in a band for so long, this time I was on my own - no gang to hide behind or fall back on." Playing guitar, piano, and electric harpsichord, Hames was aided in her effort by bassist Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs), drummer Julian Dorio (The Whigs), and lead guitarist Adam Meisterhans (The Weight). Other contributors include veteran keyboard/organ wizard Dave Amels of Reigning Sound and vocalists Carey Kotsionis (Bobby Bare, Jr.) and Lillie Mae Rische (Jack White).
On February 5, 2016, Merge will reissue the self-titled debut album by Crooked Fingers, the solo project of Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann. Originally released in 2000, Crooked Fingers - a.k.a. "the one with the swan on it" - will be pressed on vinyl for the first time and include a download of the entire record plus nine bonus tracks of demos and rarities.
To mark the occasion of the reissue, we asked Josh Modell of The A.V. Club to write new liner notes for the album. Here is an excerpt:
Not long after he recorded this debut, Eric told me that he wanted Crooked Fingers to constantly evolve - that every record would sound different, and every tour would feature different players and new arrangements. He's kept to that, releasing albums that constantly tug and question, restless but preternaturally consistent. What you're holding represents the first step, a big, quiet leap into the unknown - which ended up being a beautiful place.
Introduction to Escape-ism by Escape-ism isn't a typical record.
Oh, sure, it looks like one, with a label in the center and mysterious grooves etched on a sleek, black disc that glints in the light with a perverse air of knowing treachery. But this disc is different.
Why? Because it's the first "solo" record by Ian Svenonius - of groups The Make-Up, Chain & the Gang, XYZ, Weird War, etc. - and as such, it's profound, prophetic, perverse, and poetic... It's introverted glitter, violence against the state, obsessive desire; it stomps on convention, shreds constitutions, clobbers pre-conceived notions of what a record can be.
A drum box, a guitar, a cassette player, and a single slobbering, sinful voice singing out... for a way out. Live, it's a new paradigm of performance: raw, gestural, idiotic, sublime, revolutionary, poetic, faux naÃ¯f, unknowing, a drainage pipe that leads to who knows where.
Escape-ism's Introduction to Escape-ism isn't just the soundtrack for a late-night drive on a lonely interstate, or a platter played to incite abandon at a pajama party with one's pals. It's also a tunnel to tomorrow. It's a mineshaft to the motherlode.
Lateness of Dancers is the fifth full-length from Hiss Golden Messenger. It's an open, confident, immediate album, and it feels, at times, like a direct response to the darkness of M.C. Taylor's last record, 2013's Haw, or to the searching of 2010's Bad Debt, the stunning acoustic LP he made at his kitchen table shortly after the birth of his son.
Lateness of Dancers was recorded in a tin-roofed barn outside of Hillsborough, North Carolina, last fall and includes many of Taylor's longtime collaborators, like Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun, the guitarist William Tyler, and his erstwhile recording partner Scott Hirsch.
It is a record about self-discovery and self-knowledge, and how impossible it is to outsmart yourself. Still, over and over, Taylor subverts that creeping darkness, turns it into something useful, defines it and defangs it and transforms it; Lateness of Dancers is, against all odds, an optimistic record.
It seems unlikely to me that there will be another record this year that does this work, or does it this well. Lateness of Dancers is a deliverance from the self, to the self. From Taylor to us.
Hallelujah Anyhow is the latest studio album from Hiss Golden Messenger, out September 22 worldwide on Merge Records. Its ten new songs, penned by HGM principal M.C. Taylor, were recorded with Brad Cook, Phil Cook, Chris Boerner, Josh Kaufman, Darren Jessee, Michael Lewis, and Scott Hirsch. Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Tift Merritt, Skylar Gudasz, Tamisha Waden, Mac McCaughan, and John Paul White provided vocal harmonies.
I see the dark clouds. I was designed to see them. They're the same clouds of fear and destruction that have darkened the world since Revelations, just different actors. But this music is for hope. That's the only thing I want to say about it. Love is the only way out. I’ve never been afraid of the darkness; it’s just a different kind of light. And if some days that belief comes harder than others, hallelujah anyhow.
Whatcha gonna do when the wall comes down?When the wall comes down?What you ought to do is let it lie-let it lieAnd in the gathering darkness vow to never go backIt was built by man and you can tear it downTear it down, tear it downStep back, Jack, from the darkness
I've seen darker things than night. Hallelujah anyhow.-M.C. Taylor, July 2017
Ibibio Sound Machine will release Uyai on March 2. Fronted by London-born Nigerian singer Eno Williams, Ibibio Sound Machine is a clash of African and electronic elements inspired in equal measure by the golden era of West African funk, disco, modern post-punk, and electro. The intervening time since their self-titled debut album in 2014 has been spent forging a reputation as a high-energy live act appearing on stages such as Later... with Jools Holland, Glastonbury, Roskilde, and the BBC 6 Music Festival, as well as at iconic venues such as Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London as part of Lauren Laverne's "Wonder Women" series.
Weird and wonderful folk stories, recounted to Eno by her family as a child in her mother's Ibibio tongue, form the creative fabric from which the band's unique musical tapestry is woven. Evocative poetic imagery and empowering messages set against an edgy, Afro-Electro soundscape give the band a unique space within the current wave of modern Afrocentric sounds sweeping across the globe.
Ibibio Sound Machine is Eno Williams (vocals), Alfred Kari Bannerman (guitar), Anselmo Netto (percussion), Jose Joyette (drums), John McKenzie (bass), Tony Hayden (trombone, synth), Scott Baylis (trumpet, synth), and Max Grunhard (saxophone, synth).
It has been a lengthy hiatus, but we have finally finished our latest “masterpiece” and named it after an incredible indigenous-rights movement that is happening right now called Idle No More. I was born and raised in Montreal and spent a lot of time on the Kahnawake Mohawk Indian reservation. Much of my juvenile delinquent training came from years of tripping out there with my best friends.Idle No More is probably the most refined piece of music we have made to date. The songs are about the state of the world we live in today.It took a long time to make, but we are very proud and pleased to bring you this album. I hope that the future will brighten up every time it is played. Ultimately, John and Yoko were absolutely right: LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED!
Peace and Love,King Bama Lama KhanEmperor of RnB
M. Ward returns with a stunning new album, More Rain, for release on Merge Records on March 4, 2016. Ward has released a string of acclaimed solo albums over the past several years, along with five LPs with Zooey Deschanel as She & Him and a 2009 collaborative album with My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis under the moniker Monsters of Folk. In addition to his celebrated work as a musician, Ward is an accomplished producer, handling those duties for such luminaries as Mavis Staples, Jenny Lewis, and Carlos Forster as well as his own musical projects.
This album, Ward's eighth solo affair, finds the artist picking up the tempo and volume a bit from his previous release, 2012's A Wasteland Companion. Where that record introspectively looked in from the outside, More Rain finds Ward on the inside, gazing out. Begun four years ago and imagined initially as a DIY doo-wop album that would feature Ward experimenting with layering his own voice, it soon branched out in different directions, a move that he credits largely to his collaborators here who include R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, The Secret Sisters, and Joey Spampinato of NRBQ. The result is a collection of upbeat, sonically ambitious yet canonically familiar songs that both propel Ward's reach and satisfy longtime fans.
Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan was ready to take a collection of unused tracks he had written for various movie soundtracks and assemble a new solo album. He needed only to write a few more songs to round out what was supposed to be an invigorating power pop record. Sounds easy enough, right? However, upon employing some dusty synths on the tracks "Your Hologram" and "Only Do," McCaughan realized that he wanted to use the album, eventually titled Non-Believers, to explore his fascination with that early-'80s era of music when punk evolved into something more introspective, focusing on themes of isolation and eventually turning into post-punk and new wave. It also became clear that he had to scrap the original batch of songs in order to do it.
When writing the songs for Non-Believers, McCaughan had a duo of fictional teen goths in mind and followed them on their journey of growing into adulthood and transitioning into a world they weren't sure they'd accept. "The important thing is that they're going through it together," he says. Upon hearing the spacey opening keyboard notes of "Your Hologram," it's hard to resist going on that journey with these kids.
On Mike Krol Is Never Dead: The First Two Records, we catch up—with the past, that is. Indeed, Turkey, released in 2015, is Chapter 3 of the Krol saga; here, finally, are its long-lost predecessors. Self-released in 2011, I Hate Jazz was the opening salvo of World War Krol. Only 500 copies were pressed; they were given away to anyone who showed interest (and many who showed none whatsoever). Including Krol classics like "Fifteen Minutes" and "Like a Star," the record has long been unavailable. Trust Fund followed in 2013; its 500 copies sold out on the ensuing tour, fueling a mini-mania that would elevate it to cult status. This set includes both records on freshly pressed Merge vinyl; an illuminating selection of digital outtakes, demos, and B-sides; and a fold-out poster showcasing a selection of Mike Krol ephemera.
The North Carolina-based band Mount Moriah - composed of Heather McEntire (lead vocals, guitar), Jenks Miller (lead guitar, keys), and Casey Toll (bass, keys) - seem insistent to grow. If Mount Moriah's self-titled debut showed them standing with sea legs, determined to dream their way free from the dark crevices and corners of alt-country's stiff template; and if Miracle Temple, their second album, called that darkness by its Southern name and met it with fire; then their latest collection of songs, How to Dance, is a devotion to the cosmic light itself: moving towards it, moving into it, becoming it. Mount Moriah's third full-length sees them stretching further to explore their collective interest in the intangible fringes of fate and synchronicity. With How to Dance, the band presents new themes of symbolism, mysticism, alchemy, universality, sacred geometry. There is color, confidence, self-direction, joy. There is also darkness, but only to show you how it found its light.
In I'm Not There, a film supposition of Bob Dylan's life, the version of Dylan played by Cate Blanchett - the pre-motorcycle crash, Blonde on Blonde Dylan - says that "a poem is like a naked person," and then, blending into the same line, "but a song is something that walks by itself." Mount Moriah have created a continuous dialogue with humanity, with the metaphysical, with the ecology right in front of us. Here, in How to Dance, everything walks by itself.
Shattered will be Reigning Sound's first album for Merge and the first full LP by the group since 2009's Love and Curses.
The band's principal songwriter/member is Greg Cartwright, who's been leading the shifting cast of characters since 2001. You may be familiar with some of the band's work, as this album is preceded by five studio efforts as well as numerous EPs and live records. Or perhaps some of Greg's other projects have been on your musical radar: The Oblivians, Parting Gifts, Compulsive Gamblers, 68 Comeback, Deadly Snakes, Detroit Cobras.
Regardless, as far as Reigning Sound is concerned, this is as good a place to start as any because through many line-up changes and mood swings, the central, constant feature is the way Greg writes songs.
The album was recorded at Daptone's Brooklyn studio (where drummer Mikey works in the office) and masterfully engineered by Wayne Douglas. The recordings are warm and punchy, a mixed bag of rockers, ballads, and something in between. There are only 11 songs on the album, but the band reckons it's just right.
The words are entrancingly cryptic, as if their simplicity conceals unfathomable depths. The music is sparse, almost whispered at times, like a secret. The title gives everything away, though. During the gestation of his 2002 album Impasse, which will receive a new vinyl pressing from Merge Records on March 31, 2017, Richard Buckner was stuck. But, with perseverance, what began as one of his most troubled recording attempts ended as one of his best and most pivotal - a capstone for his wayfaring early period before he planted roots with Merge.
"You don't really know what you're writing at the time," Buckner says. "Writing seems to be kind of prophetic and it makes much more sense looking back on it. But I think mystery is good. If you ever think you know what you're doing, then you're probably in bad shape."
Seaweed formed out of the fertile northwest punk scene of the mid-to-late '80s in Tacoma and Olympia Washington. Singer Aaron Stauffer, fresh off a stint in the little-known Spook & the Zombies, founded the band with best friend Clint Werner, who assumed guitar duties. After the recruitment of guitarist Wade Neal, bassist John Atkins, and drummer Bob Bulgrien, Seaweed began playing clubs throughout the Pacific Northwest. From 1989 to 1999, Seaweed recorded five punk-pop LPs and played over a thousand shows. According to All Music Guide, "they played D.I.Y. with the Sub Pop label for their first three records, went ambitiously astray by signing with Hollywood Records, then did the cool right thing by returning to indie Merge."
This August, Merge Records offers the vinyl reissue of 1999's Actions and Indications, remastered and pressed to high quality vinyl, with three unreleased bonus tracks (digital only) added. Originally recorded at Tacoma's Uptone Electric studio in the summer of 1998, Actions and Indications is a tour de force of power chord dynamism.
It's a Myth, Sneaks' second album is due March 31, 2017, on Merge Records.
With little more than a bass, drum machine, and deadpan vocals, Sneaks, a.k.a. Eva Moolchan, makes minimalist music that takes up space - something she herself has made a point of doing in the male-heavy Washington, D.C., DIY punk scene that has been her home. Moolchan's compelling songwriting, along with the fervid energy of her shows, prompted breakout D.C. label Sister Polygon to release her 2015 debut Gymnastics, which Merge reissued in September 2016.
It's a Myth builds on Sneaks' playfully stark approach to post-punk, which, as her hometown City Paper described it, causes listeners to go "from curious to provoked to hungry." Hungry, in part, because the new album clocks in at just 18 minutes of 10 taut, captivating tracks (but still a feast compared to Gymnastics' 14 minutes). It also adds Jonah Takagi and Ex Hex/Helium frontwoman Mary Timony, who recorded the album at Timony's D.C. studio. "She's got art in her brain," Timony has said of Moolchan. "Her brain is making beautiful stuff."
On November 11, we welcome Sneaks to Merge Records with the reissue of her debut album Gymnastics, which Impose called one of its favorite records of 2015. Check out "True Killer" now, and pre-order the album on CD or LP in the Merge store or digitally via iTunes.
Sneaks songs are the mesmerizing post-punk incantations of Washington, DC's Eva Moolchan. Bass and drum machine underpin Moolchan's compelling vocals, and the music straddles several decades of serious minimalist fun to create her own unique niche of rock. "The songs came together pretty fast, very tongue-in-cheek," writes Moolchan of Gymnastics. "I was playing with how we use language and twisting the words of mundane slogans, ads, and repetitive symbols I was seeing while attending school." Sneaks is currently recording her sophomore album to be released on Merge in early 2017. While her music and lyrics are rooted in punk, Sneaks' live shows often provide the joy and release of a dance party. See the band on tour this fall, with more dates to be announced soon.
When I listen to our first album now, other than cringing at some clams and the vocals and the juvenile attitude of the whole thing... what was I angry about? You’ll have to ask 21-year-old me because in my memory, we were having fun. I hear the accumulation of our influences, which I suppose is normal for a first album—weaving all the things you loved up to that point into your own first thing. The Buzzcocks, HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, Dinosaur Jr, and Sonic Youth are all right there and what we were listening to.
I was living in NYC finishing school when we made this record, so rehearsals and recording were all rushed. I'm surprised we knew this many songs well enough to record them. Twenty-seven years later, we still play at least three or four of these songs live occasionally (one of them all the time...), which says something good about a few of the songs, anyway! We got so much better as a band, and as songwriters, that it’s hard to even see this as any kind of template for what Superchunk would eventually be, but it's definitely where we were at in 1989/90.
- Mac McCaughanMay 2017
Anthology serves as a celebration of The Clean, a band whose influence extends so far beyond their New Zealand home that even if you have never heard of The Clean before, you have surely heard of some of the bands (Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Superchunk, to name a few) who have been influenced by their unique blend of homemade garage rock, hook-filled melodies, and psychedelic experimentalism.
The album is a compilation of songs from across The Clean's legendary musical career, which began in 1981 and continues today. Merge originally released the 2-CD Anthology in 2003, but in celebration of our 25th anniversary, we felt the time was right to release this essential collection on quadruple LP.
Hamish and David Kilgour formed The Clean in 1978. Hamish played drums, and David picked up a guitar and figured out how to play it as he went along. Various other folk passed through the Kilgour brothers’ orbit during the first two years or so before Robert Scott (The Bats) joined on bass. Hamish, David, and Robert all wrote songs and sang in The Clean, who made their first recordings for the renowned New Zealand label Flying Nun in 1981.
The Clientele’s 2007 album, God Save The Clientele has been re-pressed and is now available on vinyl via Merge worldwide.
The Clientele's 2009 album, Bonfires on the Heath has been re-pressed and is now available on vinyl via Merge worldwide.
With Matt Douglas fully on board as woodwinds-and-kitchen-sink guy, we're now a four-piece, and to record this album, our fourth for Merge and the one to which you're presumably about to listen, we went to Blackbird Studio in Nashville, as top-shelf a facility as any on the planet. They have the board Aja was recorded on. When Jon asked about snares, he was told, "We have 200 of them." We had sixteen people from the Nashville Symphony Chorus skip out on a Mahler rehearsal to come in and sing on a song. Sixteen!
The theme this time around is goth, a subject closer to my heart perhaps than that of any Mountain Goats album previous. And while John writes the songs, as he always has, it feels more than ever like he's speaking for all of us in the band, erstwhile goths (raises hand) or otherwise, for these are songs that approach an identity most often associated with youth from a perspective that is inescapably adult. Anyone old enough to have had the experience of finding oneself at sea in a cultural landscape that’s suddenly indecipherable will empathize with Pat Travers showing up to a Bauhaus show looking to jam, for example.
—Peter HughesFebruary 2017Charlotte, NC
Beat the Champ is about professional wrestling, which was an avenue of escape for me when I was a kid. Wrestling was low-budget working class entertainment back then, strictly UHF material. It was cheap theater. You had to bring your imagination to the proceedings and you got paid back double. I wrote these songs to re-immerse myself in the blood and fire of the visions that spoke to me as a child, and to see what more there might be in them now that I'm grown.