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Merchandise - Children of Desire

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Artist: Merchandise

Album: Children of Desire

Label: Katorga Works

Review date: May. 14, 2012

If you find yourself flipping through a merch box at an upcoming hardcore punk show, the Merchandise records you’d find are the poppiest, most accessible slabs in there by at least the length of two bullet belts. I’m not sure how old these guys are, but they lead the DIY charge in nostalgia-rooted expression at this stage in time, reaching back to the airbrushed achievement of a late 1980s/early ’90s glam-pop nuance that aligned with, and possibly preceded, the births of the band members. They sound like guys with Flock of Seagulls haircuts, but their performance in that mode, at least as far as these songs are concerned, is so complete and so utterly real that there is scarcely any other way to take it.

Merchandise’s members did an interview last year in which they spell out their beliefs, something short of a manifesto but all the same refreshing to see. We’re starting to find the sort of bands who realize that the music industry has nothing to offer them, short of what they can do themselves and with help of their friends and supporters. The label that released the new Merchandise record, and most of the ones that precede it, gives away free downloads of all its releases, yet still regularly sells out of physical titles in their catalog. Watching these parties and others (like Milk Music) operate from a distance is exciting, because you can sense that the momentum behind them is real, not numbers on a Kickstarter campaign. If you like them, then you probably want to see them succeed, and by that logic, you have already taken a more active stake in their potential. You’re buying into the “yourself” part of DIY, because support and involvement are the only things that can really propel any music out of this encampment.

Merchandise is here to tell us that it’s their moment. Children of Desire is a strong step forward from a band that’s had no qualms with allowing its ambitions to unfold as part of the band itself. The band’s principle members, Carson Cox and David Vassalotti, are responsible for almost all of the music on the record (Cox is the vocalist, Vassalotti the guitarist, while both work on the backing tracks along with bassist Patrick Brady). Ambition pours out of the sleeve in the form of a black, stapled tract, entitled Desire in the Mouth of Dogs, by one “W. Marchendese,” a collection of journal entries written by our avatar into the world around Desire. In it, Bill M., presumably a twentysomething philosophy grad from a four-year college, overthinks life in a green cloud of pot smoke, as his life is dictated by a series of nightmares over the space of a few months. The words overlap at points with the music on the album, and the story steers the sometimes elegant, ambitious nature of these six songs from an alluring, dark synth-pop embrace into something much more abstract and terrifying. Bill’s world is coming apart at the seams; his days disintegrate in balmy heat and displaced confidence against the drugs and the general confusion of this age. He’s yet another guy who has a fatalistic drive to contextualize his education against his life experience, in search of the path created by the greater meaning in all the books he’s read. As Bill’s dreams become darker and more sexualized, he is set further adrift from the changes he can make in real life. It’s a tale of depression, and accurately captures the clammy, suffocating inertia that comes with the diagnosis.

The brief dialogue in Desire reads as stilted, but the narrative prose is well-executed and honest about how lost our narrator is (at one point, Bill leaves a hardcore show to sit in his car, and winds up sleeping through the whole thing). “I’m getting so much closer to overcoming these base human desires [for money and sex] that it frightens me,” Bill confesses in the story’s most desperate passage, which for as far as it wants to digress into a hole of self-pity and psychotic fear, is as apt a metaphor for Merchandise as a whole — all young people have felt this, though they don’t always have the means to express themselves so eloquently. If the story sounds like a journal of a broken consciousness and fear of isolation, Merchandise the band takes this opportunity to suffuse their grand, expressive forays into New Romantic ennui with a confidence and mastery of their own means that blows this story into cinematic proportions. Guitars sweep across tracks in a horde of thin, distorted flourishes that dissipate in the late-day sun; synthesizers and drum computers weave a fine net of rhythm and texture behind it all; church organ carries melodies to the far reaches of the audience’s attention span. Cox’s vocals melt against the music, and the things he has to say sound as if he could single out anyone in the room and make them melt, too. On “In Nightmare Room,” the biggest-sounding track here, a retelling of a bad dream is snapped into power-ballad mode, congas setting the pace for big, blurry patches of synth and guitar to mow everything down in the name of active doom. It’s as apt a song as the story behind it could tell.

These guys didn’t half-ass anything here; they coat the proceedings in fog juice and let it dissipate, that sweet, insistent smell hanging all over them. You could compare the way this record sounds to like how a high school yearbook looks, glossy reminiscences of people you saw at their worst, collected by the sheer will of settlement, the products of people who shifted their dreams elsewhere for a moment and wound up with children to raise in a suburban sprawl. Children of Desire could be read as a wish to return to those idyllic afternoons, ones which are now erased for the majority of Americans; ones which I grew up around, feeling free and alone in the confines of a shopping center, a part of my upbringing that doubled as a critical function of teen society. It’s a heavily romantic gesture and if there were a cologne sample in the book, it would be complete.

But that notion is hard to read. I don’t know why these guys make this kind of music, but they get so much right when so many other people are lost in VCR tracking knob adjustments or the chilled, talentless refuge of the synthesizer itself. And if you’ve gotten this far in reading about Children of Desire and haven’t been put off by any of this malarkey, you would do well to find a copy of your own and form your own opinions. It says something that this sort of pomp could be viewed as a sociopolitical statement and as commercial art, and it provides an experiential listen in ways that most records these days just can’t. They don’t sound as if they need to write themselves into history, but just to exist in a creative state against a time that hasn’t yet been priced out of existence.

By Doug Mosurock

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