I was always disappointed that Merchandise
abandoned their noise-rock roots in pursuit of a softer, dreamier kind of somber pop. (Strange Songs) In the Dark
is one of my favorite albums of all time, the mad scrabbling of men trying to escape from a room with no lights and no doors; the rest of their catalog, skews closer to The Smiths and all of the other tender, Brit-pop outfits that are so closely associated with sensitive young musicians. The prospects for their concerts, then, I figured, would only be so much pleasant head-bopping and feet-shuffling.
For a time I was right: the music ambled along, as warm as any spring day and invested with enough energy (particularly from drummer Elsner Nino, a man with the distinct ability to pack even a simple cymbal flick with commanding impact) to keep it from getting boring, but it lacked a certain compelling something. Everyone around me seemed spurred to madness by those moments where the music occasionally opened up with an explosion, and at some point people began lobbing cups of beer over the crowd, pits formed in strange and isolated locations -- their frenzy seemed less like a reaction to the band's music than their own internal frustrations.
Everyone seemed alright to hop along when the encore began with a perfect if rendition of "Anxiety's Door" and seemed more than primed as the song began to transform into something else, but were utterly baffled at what came next. Somehow, the obvious trajectory and transition for the song derailed; it became apparent that the band's attempt to play through one song and into another was actually some kind of desperate struggle to hold together a dynamic that was very obviously spinning apart.
A moment later that dynamic collapsed, from coherence to cacophony in a flat second. Guitarist David Vassalotti collapsed on the ground, plucked not madly but hopelessly at his guitar strings, like they were trying to get away from him; Nino launched an all-out assault on his drums, lead man Carson Cox began to jabber incessantly and Chris Horn turned his back on the proceedings entirely. The kids in the pits who had, until that moment, been shoving each other with a real aggression tried to keep up, threw in a half-hearted shuffle or stray fist-pump, but their enthusiasm gave way to confusion and a struggle to make sense of just what was happening. This wasn't the typical rock-star break-down, the kind of juvenile display of machismo that ends in smashed guitars or the idiotic calculations of a band desperate to prove just how wild they are.
This was one of those rare moments that Greil Marcus witnessed the first time he saw Sonic Youth, those times where the music seems to be literally falling apart and the predictability of the controlled gives way to the delight of the spontaneous. A show is a performance and the best performances are those that seem unrehearsed. If this was all calculated, then Merchandise is primed for a future as one of the great acting troupes. If not, then they still possess that mad energy that drew me to them in the first place. Either way, they possess a stage presence not to be missed.
Ninos Du Brasil