It’s been five and a half months since Carson Cox and the two other Floridians that compose Merchandise dropped their latest full length, Children Of Desire. With the ever-notable Pitchfork bump, and to put it plainly, some of their slickest produced material to date, it’s no surprise that their first post release string of New York dates was met with some success. Whether a cavalcade of finally aligned intangibles or the culmination of years worth of effort, Merchandise took to the stage with the an air of celebration and accomplishment rather than a young trio just cutting their teeth.
By any outside estimation, Cox and co.’s meteoric rise seems to belie their lack of internet presence. Save for some scant posts to their own personal blog, the band chooses not to reveal much, and is better suited for it. Perhaps it’s their consistent alignment with the DIY community that this shunning of the internet derives itself from, but despite existing as a band for nearly four years now, New York was, relatively, uncertain as to the live entity of Merchandise. I mean, you listen to Children of Desire and you hear kraut-inflected 80s alt-rock in its prime. Whether in the anglophilic, Morrissey-ian nature of Cox’s voice or in the Felt-in-space licks of guitarist Dave Vassalotti, Merchandise makes music that while relying on familiar tones manages to construct something nonetheless singular.
Before Merchandise was to take the stage on Friday night at Saint Vitus we had several other bands to detour through. Dream Affair, whose black clad gloom-rock aesthetic seemed a more proper match for Merchandise than those that followed, started the night with a funereal procession of sanitized Joy Division approximations. Though sterility is often maligned in it’s musical forms, it somehow worked for Dream Affair. The band funneled their take on post-punk through the rigid structures of their ever-present drum machine and the pseudo-bark of frontman Hayden Payne. Take your beloved Crystal Stilts and lock them up in a straightjacket, and you’ve landed somewhere in the neighborhood of Dream Affair’s glazed darkness.
Though Siamese Twins’ 90s jangle and coo fell victim to an abysmal mix and RØSENKØPF’s hyperactive darkwave growl was a bit too much to handle, spirits were nonetheless still high as the nights superstars took to the stage. They looked the part of three nondescript twenty-somethings from Tampa, Florida, it quickly became clear that the buzz that surrounded the months following the release of Children Of Desire was not for naught.
Though Cox started the nights proceedings hovering around a bank of drum machines and samplers, any fears of an immobile and ill-prepared frontman were swiftly allayed through quick turns through older material. Despite the crowd’s relative unfamiliarity with this pre-Desire material, heads bobbed, feet swayed, the room burbled with building anticipation. Merchandise, in all their crowd-defying ambitions, seemed poised to do the impossible–to teach the punk kids to dance.
Cox’s retrophilic affectations may suggest he’s trying a bit harder than those that tread parallel paths. Perhaps it’s in his slicked back hair, his manic facial expressions, the tucked in t-shirt. First impressions undoubtedly cry “FAKE” at the top of their lungs, but between his nervous laughter, and genuine gratitude at the response that New York had offered the band, it’s hard to hold it against him. Where one might level these criticisms, another will find one of the more compelling young frontmen in the music world. As Cox tore into the opening of “In Nightmare Room” (and a vest-y, large man flew flailing into the first several rows of onlookers) all scene-bending crowd objectives were wholly out the window. At the first whiff of Desire material, the gathered masses were–understandably–whipped into a half-dance-half-pit frenzy more at home with Merchandise’s typical punk settings than the new wave-y dance party that the night’s openers had set this experience up to be.
Whether it be through the buoyant bassline of “Time” or the weighty schizophrenic thrum of “Become What You Are”’s closing minutes, the crowd saw fit to provide the room with a sweaty, tactile energy–tangible not only in it’s metaphorical palpability, but also in the thin layer of hazy sweat permeating the front portion of the room, which Saint Vitus’s air-conditioning was unfortunately unable to overcome.
For all Merchandise’s youth and inexperience, it might be tempting to label them as undeserving of such a hero’s welcome on what’s essentially their first tour. Tuneful songwriting ability aside, and lack of a drummer be damned, Merchandise–for all their inexperience in proper venues–have something (at least in a live setting) entirely figured out.