Typically, when a band is described as “post-punk influenced,” it causes some very specific associations to be triggered: angular guitars, pulsating rhythms, dour attitudes. Tampa’s Merchandise regularly trades in such tropes. But if you look past the swirling-void atmospherics the band does so well, it becomes apparent that these Floridians are more interested in channeling the exploratory extremes of the post-punk epoch than reverently recreating its sonic details.
Though they’re unquestionably aligned with early-to-mid-‘80s doomsayers like the Chameleons and Pornagraphy-era Cure, Merchandise is the inversion of all those turn-of-the-millennium bands that aped ashen post-punk for purely wrong-headed, superficial reasons. Actually, aside from some obvious surface differences, Merchandise’s closest contemporaries are artists like the Men, No Age and Parquet Courts – bands with solid punk foundations who can meander through entire decades worth of indie rock without picking up any unnecessary baggage along the way. But to solely describe what Merchandise isn’t doing wrong would be a disservice to the ambition on display throughout their third and most accomplished album, Totale Nite.
Arising from a buzzing, percolating swamp of noise, harmonica-led opening salvo “Who Are You?,” sounds a bit like one of Pavement’s fried blued experiments circa-Wowee Zowee getting choked with some Manchester smog. Of course, Stephen Malkmus would never lay himself bare the way vocalist Carson Cox does. The increased emphasis on his instantly recognizable, love-or-hate bellow and forthright, escape-obsessed lyrics is bound to be a deal-breaker for those who blush at this kind of nakedness. Listening to “I’ll Be Gone,” a dewy-eyed, stargazing balled placed dead center in the tracklist, is sort of like sneaking a look at somebody’s diary and grappling with resulting mix of insight and second- hand embarrassment.
Yet it’s just this kind of openness that’s building a fervent following around Merchandise. And with Totale Nite single “Anxiety’s Door,” they’ve written something that could grasp the attention of listeners who might have considered the band’s previous efforts to be impenetrable. Anchored by an insistent, oscillating beat, the almost seven-minute “Anxiety’s Door” unfurls with a paranoid menace akin to The Queen Is Dead’s more sinister tracks, as maddening guitars ribbon around Cox’s strangled voice. This approach is pushed even further over the nine minutes of Totale Nite’s suffocating title track, until the song finally buckles under its own weight and devolves into a free jazz skronk that would almost certainly make Morrissey’s stomach turn.
Which is a testament to what makes Merchandise so interesting. Even at their most indulgent, they manage to raise some worthwhile questions about the creative stagnation and timorousness that’s plaguing an era of indie rock that’s currently growing more homogenous and pointlessly self-referential by the day. In an era replete with consummate craftsmen and curators who insist on billing themselves as something more, Merchandise is struggling toward real artistic growth.