Three-piece outfit Merchandise emerged late last decade from Tampa Bay’s DIY hardcore punk scene, but serve as an outlet for Carson Cox, Dave Vassalotti and Patrick Brady to pursue their peculiar take on pop music – even more so since signing to 4AD and exchanging lo-fi production values for added gloss and pep. ‘A Corpse Wired For Sound’ represents a back-to-basics move, but also a bold pushing against frontiers.
Their previous album, 2014’s 4AD debut ‘After The End’, was a serving of smooth, gauzy college rock, recorded as a five-piece. On ‘A Corpse…’, drums are played by a machine instead of a human (like the ‘old’ Merchandise) and right from opener ‘Flower Of Sex’, they bring its gloomy indie-goth mope to life with the kind of crashing bombast you might have assumed had been left behind in the 1980s.
This album goes heavier on the electronics than any previous Merchandise release: ‘Right Back To The Start’ is low-key synth-driven electro dub suffused in swooning romance; ‘Shadow Of The Truth’ has something of the synthpop-meets-rockpig stadium era of Depeche Mode about it. And if Morrissey had courted DJs instead of calling for their hanging, The Smiths might have turned in something like ‘Crystal Cage’, where Cox croons “I only want what’s mine…” over pneumatic drum loops and agreeably indulgent guitar.
Apparently, ‘A Corpse…’ is the first Merchandise release to have been recorded in an actual studio – which might be a moot point given how hi-fi ‘After The End’ sounded, but either way they lay it on pretty thick at times. Vassalotti’s maximalist, multi-tracked guitars on ‘Lonesome Sound’ suggest a weirder version of Bernard Butler-era Suede, while ‘Silence’ features more of those whomping gated drums accompanied by some faintly absurd wind effects.
Amid the pumping beats and Cox’s exhausted, despondent vocals, there’s still time for a curveball: disarmingly languid acoustic number ‘I Will Not Sleep Here’, a heartfelt – some might say sappy – paean to love. “Blood is thicker than water / But both can go down the same drain”. If it sounds close to daft on paper, Merchandise have the ingenuity to make it work, and so it is with this fine album.