Merge 25 Night 3: Hospitality, Imperial Teen, David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights, the Mountain Goats, Wye Oak, Destroyer
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Friday, July 25, 2014

Sets get cut short at music festivals, especially at events such as Merge 25, where bands gather to celebrate something besides boosting their own signals. Acts accustomed to having control of the night and playing until they’re ready to quit must squeeze as many songs into 45 minutes as possible, bidding adieu to an audience that sometimes boos simply because they want more. Of the six bands who played at the Cat’s Cradle Friday night, for instance, four of them—Destroyer, The Mountain Goats, Wye Oak and Imperial Teen—could have headlined the 750-capacity club. Instead, the Mountain Goats played eight songs, David Kilgour, visiting Carrboro from New Zealand, even less.

Despite the truncated performances, almost every act at Merge 25 took a pause to thank Merge Records, whether for giving their career a start or a second chance or for simply being an upfront, artist-first, artist-run imprint. “We’re so proud to be on Merge Records. I would talk more about it, but we’re on a strict time limit up here,” John Darnielle said at the midpoint of the first full-band Mountain Goats show in more than a year. “So here’s the first song from our second album on Merge Records. It’s called ‘Amy.’”

In the next slot, though, Wye Oak spared no words about the impact the label had on the duo’s lives. “Merge Records is the reason we have a career,” Jenn Wasner explained, recounting the moment she learned that her new band was signing to Merge. “It’s a collection of people who value music and art and let you do what the fuck you want to do.”

Wye Oak’s brilliant, varied set encapsulated that last bit, which seems not only to be a central ethos of Merge but also the underlying message of Friday night’s bill. In only four albums, Wye Oak has graduated from a serpentine college-rock act to a bracing pop-rock band to, on this year’s Shriek, a dance-music duo that’s embraced electronics but not forsaken the momentum of their earlier material. One three-song section of their Friday set hopscotched from seductive electropop to head-banging grunge to swerving, chirping rock. It all felt of a whole, guided and united by the power of Wasner as a singer and the instrumental versatility of both her and drummer/programmer Andy Stack. On stage as on record, Wye Oak’s veering directions felt like wide-eyed explorations of tastes and interests, not a band chasing trends to see if a new sound might stick.

Indeed, Wye Oak’s elders on the bill—David Kilgour, Imperial Teen, the Mountain Goats, Destroyer—collectively testified to the free-range that Merge allows. To an extent, all of those bands are legacy acts who had an established reputation (and, sometimes, major-label deals) before landing on Merge. That roving zeal applied especially to Destroyer, who headlined Friday night with an eight-piece band of horns and drums, guitars and keys. Dan Bejar stalked the stage like a confused lion, kneeling on the floor to drink a beer or slowly spinning in dizzy circles when he wasn’t singing. Bejar seems to project his entire insouciant being through his voice, unfurling reams of self-referential detail as though they were his reason for expending any energy at all. He’s like those long-distance, endurance athletes who don’t swing their arms so as to divert resources like oxygenated blood to the rest of their moving body. The band matched that range, simmering for his low-lights disco or sweeping behind horn-led fanfares for the roving rock of “Rubies.”

When Kilgour played Merge’s 15th anniversary in 2004, he’d just released the effervescent Frozen Orange, a pop-rock record with instant hooks and an abiding sense of effortless ease. But his recent material has taken a turn toward the menacing, attaching a Crazy Horse grit to a Television-like intensity. As he sweated through his blue button-up Friday night, that was the sound his aptly named Heavy Eights embraced. They leaned deep into the rhythms, which in turn pushed hard behind the guitars. When Kilgour too stopped to think the crowd and the label, he matched the music’s mettle by chiding the crowd. “Can you even understand what I’m saying?” Kilgour asked, suddenly shifting his voice. “If I speak in an English accent, does that help? Can you understand me now?”

The Mountain Goats raced through eight songs, slowing only for an exquisite cover of American Music Club’s “Who You Are.” They ended with a one-two sequence of the hits “No Children” and “This Year,” sating the general fans in attendance, if not the Mountain Goats obsessives there only for those 45 minutes. But they likely reveled in hearing two new, unreleased songs, which showed Darnielle’s increasing embrace of the bona fide rock band, a process that’s been ongoing for a decade but has found new poignancy on his two Merge albums to date.

There was no better acknowledgement of Merge’s long-range liberty—and, really, no better set at Merge 25—than that of Imperial Teen. They charmed their way through a dozen songs, smiling all the while and acting like they were the new kids on the roster, not ’90s survivors. Lynn Truell was witty and irreverent behind the drumkit, while the frontline of Will Schwartz, Jone Stebbins and Roddy Bottum were locked in perfect harmony. They were an early-evening energy jolt, summarizing nearly 20 years of songs in less than an hour. The set felt long because every tune felt like a hit, but it felt short because you didn’t want them to stop.
Though Merge in 2014 sports a roster loaded with veterans, from Lambchop and Bob Mould to the Mountain Goats and Magnetic Fields, the label hasn’t lost its early incubator spirit, either. It actively invests in bands that are good and intriguing but not yet great or altogether distinct. Two of Friday’s earliest acts said as much: Saint Rich, who played on a small raised stage in the gravel parking lot behind Carrboro watering hole Orange County Social Club, make twisting and pleasant pop-rock. Saint Rich’s hooks are winning, its spirit bracing. And at their best, their songs betray a faint psychedelic lace, thanks mostly to the swiveling guitar of co-founder Steve Marion, better known as the acrobatic and eclectic instrumentalist Delicate Steve. But either on their debut LP, Beyond the Drone, or Friday in the sunshine, you couldn’t pick Saint Rich’s songs from in a lineup of similar acts, no matter how much you enjoyed them.

Much the same goes for Hospitality, the Brooklyn quartet that’s released both its albums through Merge. Onstage first at the Cradle, they suggested something they’ve yet to become. Amber Papini has a bewitching and agile tone that she bends with British affectation. It’s the four-piece’s best asset, but they’re still deciding how best to use it, whether as the bait for tense post-punk or the pillow atop a bed of pleasant guitar pop. Behind and beside her, the supporting three-piece occasionally traded instruments, one guitarist moving to the drums at one point as the drummer advanced to the keys. But the effect was minor, reflective of a band that puts a lot of effort and attention into songs that, at least so far, don’t give back much of an identity.

Still, Merge has rarely, if ever, been in it for the short payoff—good news for Hospitality and Saint Rich, a lesson reinforced by a one-night string of very short sets.