When I left Little Brother and the Justus League entourage in Boston at 4 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 18, I stumbled through security at Logan International Airport and found a clean spot on the floor in front of my gate. I slept for three hours, woke up and stumbled again onto the plane. I planned on the same routine for my layover in New York, but I didn’t stop to think that I may need to be somewhat convivial on the trip’s penultimate stop.
If you have ever met Christina Rentz, the tour publicist and radio handler for Merge Records, you know exactly what I mean: I think we’d had the same amount of sleep, and I’m sure my exhaustion was written all over my face and unkempt clothes. But there she was, sitting with Merge intern Lindsey Kronmiller, smiling and laughing as I strained to recognize her, rubbing the sleep remaining from the plane ride from my eyes. Within 10 minutes, the North Carolina Record Label Convocation, as I’m dubbing it now, started to assemble for Flight 3109 at 10:25 a.m. Glenn Dicker was there, along with a couple of people from the label he co-founded, Yep Roc. So was Martin Hall, who, along with Christina, constantly helps remind just how good Merge’s output–this year, The Rosebuds, Dinosaur Jr., Portastatic, Tenement Halls, Destroyer, The Clientele, Lambchop and Spoon–actually is. Most of them had been up all night or close to it, simultaneously working and partying during the last night of their College Music Journal Music Marathon stay before returning to work Monday morning.
To say North Carolina represented this year is more than valid. Take the marathon: Besides the Merge and Yep Roc bands that made the bills, a slew of local bands were invited as well. By all reports, Bellafea played a cramped, albeit dead-on set, and The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers were late for their coveted spot on KEXP’s CMJ broadcast from The Museum of TV and Radio (for reference’s sake, The Arcade Fire played the same slot 364 days before). That same night, Little Brother played B.B. King’s in Times Square, selling the place out and bringing its own marathon for a crowd that included Atlantic Records moneybags, T.I. and most of the North Carolina hip-hop crew (Kaze, Forge & Amen, Shelly B and Shaw Hargett) that had performed for CMJ the day before at The Lion’s Den.
Chatham County Line toured Europe (they return for round two on Christmas Day) and recorded for the BBC, and Tift Merritt was nominated for a Grammy. The Rosebuds started to steal the hearts and minds of indie pop-rock enthusiasts with their pretty, troubled second LP, Birds Make Good Neighbors.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For every be-all, end-all (as far as about half of its sales goes) Pitchfork review that deems The Rosebuds “uncomfortable in a good way,” there’s another that myopically deems Little Brother’s concept of The Minstrel Show theoretically null and void ever since Kanye West decided he could rap commercially about God. For every sold-out show, there may be a half-dozen in-store performances, meet-and-greet handgrabs and same-questions, different-dude radio interviews. As Akrobatik, emcee for Definitive Jux’s The Perceptionists, told Chris Parker in an interview with the Independent: “If Little Brother went gold or platinum, I would be crying tears of joy. You hear what I’m saying? But they’re going to struggle to sell 60,000. That’s the reality. ‘Cause they’re too real.”
The state of the artist in 2005 is still tough, and the “famous” Triangle bands have it no easier than the bar band still trying to find someone to put out their record. They’re just that much closer to the chance to make their passion their career. And then it’s really time to get to work.
Alesana, Try This With Your Eyes Closed (Tragic Hero Records)