Merchandise washed the audience in reverb. Photo: Esther Meroño
I was hoping that the Danish post-punk boys from Iceage would have secretly joined their tour with Merchandise one day earlier, here in Salt Lake, but I was disappointed. The two bands would’ve complemented each other nicely; both are very straightforward in their approach to sentimental post-rock-n-roll or whatever. Merchandise’s tour has been confusing to follow, but they’ve been supporting/been supported by other fantastic bands just in the past few weeks (Mac DeMarco, White Lung, Chelsea Light Moving). They’ve just played a bunch of shows at SXSW and tonight took an opening slot for Parenthetical Girls (they’re both touring in opposite directions). I’m much less confused than they all seemed to be. I put a great deal of expectations on Merchandise and left twisted but fulfilled by Zac Pennington’s unsettling expression of indie pop.
Wet Hair opened the show with a great set of post-punky electronic songs that casually drifted away into the land of dream pop. They reminded me of a less manic Abe Vigoda or a noisier New Order. Justin Thye’s chugging bass lines drove the songs, over which Shawn Reed sang like a mentally healthy Ian Curtis. They played much of their latest album, Spill Into Atmosphere. The songs were totally danceable, but the crowd was pretty passive.
From a wash of reverb, Merchandise’s lead guitarist Dave Vassalotti strummed the opening chords of an honest pop song called “Time.” Carson Cox’s melancholic croon shone through the band’s wall of sound, peaking at (my favorite Merchandise line), “I’m really just an animal/made with human parts.” Cox’s voice has been compared to Morrissey’s, and his lyrics are equally as effective as the Mozza’s are. It’s those kinds of simple pop lyrics that, when wrapped in a singular romantic and artistic vision, melt me. Formed in Tampa, Fla. out of straight edge disillusionment and the breakup of a hardcore band called Cult Ritual, Merchandise has just released Totale Nite, a follow up EP to their brilliant one of last year, Children of Desire and are now touring in support of both. Cox can talk at length in interviews about his influences—Throbbing Gristle and early industrial, Bob Dylan and lyricism, Cocteau Twins and post-punk, twee, jazz, D.C. Go-go, power violence… all of which seep into the band’s sound. Despite holding a punk aesthetic dearly, leaving the hardcore influence behind for more pop-oriented ’80s indie nostalgia has been a great career move. Merchandise’s sound is distinct, many of their songs sift manically through their variety of influences for eight minutes or longer, a skill they performed expertly during their set. Re-invention is a drag, but these guys have managed to create something fresh out of the “classic” template of guitars, bass and drums.
From “Time” they went right into a new track, “Anxiety’s Door” before punking out halfway through and going straight into a terrifying run on “In Nightmare Room.” After announcing their new record, they dug into the similarly anxious older song, “What I Want/What I Wanted,” which had echoes of a blistering J. Mascis from You’re Living All Over Me. Vassalotti’s impressive guitar playing was the secret glue holding together the rest of the band; he earned his amazing solos throughout the night.
Chris Horn joined them on sax for their only other new song of the evening, “Totale Nite,” a ten-minute hell raiser that twisted and turned through all of the individual elements that composite Merchandise—shoegazing chords, charging punk rhythms, contemplative lyricism, thrashing walls of guitar noise, that built up and up and up towards an ending where Cox swaps his Moz mask for a Johnny Rotten Pistols bark.
The crowd was always at a standstill. I was ready to bounce all around the room for “Time,” but I didn’t want to offend any hardcore bros in the audience—I have an irrational fear that they’ll be violently unpredictable. Cox seemed disconnected from Kilby’s audience, which is a terrible shame because there was great potential in the evening for a transcendent punk show. I don’t know why, maybe because I’m so moved by their lyrics, maybe the Moz correlation, but I expected Cox to be more melancholic and brooding. Queerer even. On record they sound much older and wiser. I think my expectations were a bit overblown, but I really wish that there had been a greater connection between Cox and the audience. They finished with another older track, “I Locked the Door,” a truly haunting song lyrically, though the noise level had surpassed any clarity of Cox’s vocals by the end of the set. I wished they had played my favorite, the anthem “Become What You Are.” My punk Jiminy Cricket is telling me, “Fuck wishing. Fuck expectations.”
Parenthetical Girls joined the show “pro bono,” singer Zac Pennington told the audience. The Portland band are veteran Salt Lake visitors—I saw them nearly a year ago open for Perfume Genius at Kilby. The venue was crammed full of people then who may not have been interested in Pennington’s confrontational ethics; there were much fewer people that came out this time for either band, despite existing in uniquely large scenes. I couldn’t really make out the fans of Parenthetical Girls from those of Merchandise, but I think everybody just wanted to make out with Pennington. Though I initially came for Merchandise, Pennington totally mesmerized me (how easily did I forget the last time?) and upstaged the boys from Tampa in terms of audience interaction. I should’ve know it was coming—he’s been awkwardly confronting complacent indie rock crowds for longer. That’s Pennington’s charm as a performer—he’s charmingly unpredictable. Also, if Carson Cox had the Mozza’s voice, Pennington had his moves—taking his act into the crowd and even outside of Kilby’s garage. At one point he called himself a “queeny dude.” Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu), had been a part of Pennington’s pop music project when it started and Parenthetical Girls is similarly dark and uncomfortable. To be honest, I really like Parenthetical Girls, but I’ve not listened to their songs very often. The only one I recognized was “A Song For Ellie Greenwich,” which has a completely Xiu Xiu vibe. After their great set of dark indie pop, Pennington took the show outside for an unplanned firework display that ended the whole evening of music with a fizzle.
Check out more photos from the night here.