Recap: Merge Records Showcase at SXSW
Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire set the tone for Merge Records’ SXSW showcase last night by thanking her signers and making a small declaration—Merge is “the best record label in the world.” For those at the festival who weren’t totally familiar with the beloved Durham, N.C. label (although they’ve inevitably heard its signed acts if they are fans of music and things that are good), the claim might have been a little lofty, but let’s look at the facts: it was formed by Superchunk’s Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan in the late ‘80s, released amazing albums from The Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Mountain Goats, M. Ward, Spoon and Bob Mould, and has a dedicated enough fanbase that anything with the Merge stamp will (minimum) stir up conversation in the blog world.
If you’re not sold on McEntire’s sentiment, we can at least agree its history and proven track record is enough to make its owners proud and its competitors jealous. So last night was a great opportunity to see Merge’s roster (new and old) show what’s next.
The first set we caught was Mikal Cronin, who you might have seen before playing bass for Ty Segall. Cronin’s show has all the energy and bite you’d expect from a Segall collaborator, but this songwriter serves it with heaping piles of pop sensibility, smart songwriting and for-real, non-effect-soaked solos. Cronin’s set leaned heavily on his upcoming album, MCII, which is out in May. It’s fantastic, and you should be waiting for it.
We saw Mount Moriah for the second time (they also played a great set at our day party yesterday), again showing off their latest, Miracle Temple. The band proved their versatility, filling the mid-size Parish no-problem, and by the last note it was clear they could command a room much larger. It’s already been said, but we’re fans.
Up next was Telekinesis, fronted by drummer-on-stage/multi-instrumentalist-in-the-studio Michael Benjamin Lerner. We love Lerner’s back catalog, 12 Desperate Straight Lines (also on Merge) and Telekinesis!, but tonight he was testing out his new cuts from the forthcoming Dormarion and introducing his new band: Erik Walters of The Globes on guitar, Say Hi’s Eric Elbogen on bass and Wild Flag’s Rebecca Cole on keyboards. It’s hard to think of a band that looked happier on stage than this foursome, showing off material that promises a great new album in Dormarion and also convincingly tackling Lerner’s back catalog.
Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws even made an unexpected appearance, performing a new track “Wires” that he helped Lerner pen for the album. With Telekinesis shifting to include electronic elements on the new album (new single “Ghosts and Creatures” probably shows that at its most extreme), I was interested to see how it worked live, but this unit was punchy, concise, awesome and had a lot of fun doing it.
As expected, Merge’s showcase was a satisfying confirmation of what’s to come from a proven source of good music for years, and we’ll be waiting to see what comes next.