The Florida punks break away from the pack with five tracks full of high drama, fresh ideas and singer Carson’s emotive croon
There are several things that distinguish Merchandise from the other post-punk wannabes on the block, but let’s concentrate on the most obvious first. Alternative music is populated with more than its fair share of bad singers. We all know the types. Mumblers. Mutterers. Have-a-go shouters. Frontmen adept at running along the photo pit slapping everybody in the front row on the hand, but who, honestly, couldn’t hit a note if it was James Corden’s face and they were eight feet away with a box of eggs.
Carson Cox, frontman of Florida’s Merchandise, can sing. Beautifully, in fact – a deeply emotive croon. This isn’t the only thing to say about Merchandise, but it immediately places them far ahead of the pack.
Following on the heels of last year’s breakout ‘Children Of Desire’, ‘Totale Nite’ perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a follow-up proper. Clocking in at five tracks and 33 minutes, it was originally billed as an EP and sees the light of day not through one of the bigger labels brawling for Merchandise’s signature, but on miniscule Iowa label Night-People. Nor does it see them particularly desperate to capitalise on that previous record’s buzz. For while ‘Children Of Desire’ saw them moping in the unkempt graveyard of neo-goth, ‘Totale Nite’ shears away the cobwebs and sees the group – completed by guitarist/keyboardist Dave Vassalotti, bassist Patrick Brady and a trusty drum machine (although a proper drummer, Elsner Nino, has recently joined the band) – honing their sound.
Sonically, ‘Totale Nite’ is both simple and elaborate. The main elements here are straightforward enough – acoustic guitar, electric guitar, synth, thunking digi-drums – but such well-worn tools are stacked and layered until they create something of high drama and epic scope. ‘Who Are You?’ saunters in on a swampy groove and a squall of harmonica, a rise from slumber with notes of Spiritualized at their jammiest and Cox singing, “Today the sun rose/Like the hand of God/Made the earth breathe again…” While ‘Children Of Desire’ was inspired by nightmares and Eastern philosophy, ‘Totale Nite’ veers towards simplistic, almost elemental imagery: that of sun and moon, night and day.
Cox’s romantic melancholy has been replaced by a spirit that verges on the beatific. On ‘Anxiety’s Door’, we join him at night as he roams the streets of his hometown: Tampa, Florida. This is a place of grit and desperate poverty, where “old men sleep in the road”, but to Cox the air smells like perfume, and the racing drums and spry acoustic guitar capture his sense of footloose elation: “With no chains on my heart”, he sings, “it’s so easy to be free”. This is a record of possibilities. Four of the five songs sprawl out to over six minutes long, not out of indulgence but because there is so much to cram in. This is a band who think nothing of giving over the album’s title track to a stern nine-minute churn that sets growling guitars against dirty squalls of brass.
But where ‘Totale Nite’ excels is in its moments of straightforward beauty. ‘Winter’s Dream’, notionally a tale of a young man’s death, is guided by the slow undertow of bass and guitars that chime like steel drums on some distant beach. ‘I’ll Be Gone’ winds through swooning chord changes, yearning guitar shadowed by distant fissures of feedback, and a lyrical lament that reaches its peak with Cox crooning, “I’m gonna plant myself in the sun/Just to be free from all you motherfuckers”. Hone in on one instrument and you can hear the music on this record was probably made cheaply, in a low-rent studio. How does it sound so magnificent?
We live in postmodern times, when culture can seem like a process of endless consumption and regurgitation. But Merchandise don’t want to be the goths pulling on fishnets 30 years late. They dream of being modernists; a clean page; a cultural jump-start. Only time will tell if they succeed. But ‘Totale Nite’ points in the right direction.