Monday, 7 November 2016

1,008 MERCHANDISE, EZTV, Manners, Birmingham Sunflower Lounge, Friday 4th November 2016

Merchandise set
(no list – the drummer used a laptop!)

Lonesome Sound
Crystal Cage
In Nightmare Room
End Of the Week
Right Back To The Start
Green Lady
Little Killer
True Monument
Anxiety’s Door
After The End
Flower Of Sex

The first gig of a busy November sees me beating feet upcountry, to a new venue in Birmingham to see nevertheless familiar protagonists – Tampa, FL’s excellent, inventive spacey alt rockers Merchandise, back in the UK after a 2 year hiatus, promoting current album “A Corpse Wired For Sound”. A slight step away from the more structured, conventional and cleaner sound of last effort “After The End” and back to the layered, textured feel of previous efforts, this one, with tunes and vocals hazy, indistinct and submerged, and an occasional strident and blaring 80’s proto New Romantic synth encroaching into the mix. It’s nonetheless a grower, and they’ve been consistently excellent and entertaining “live”, especially vocalist Carson Cox, currently occupying Evan Dando’s usual spot as my favourite impossibly handsome and equally flaky space cadet rock star.

Unfortunately Birmingham was the nearest the tour passed to the ‘don (didn’t fancy crossing London to the earlier Lexington show so soon after returning from our Florida holiday last weekend!), so this necessitated a 5pm leap into Friday commuter traffic, and a reasonable 7.30 arrival at the venue after parking at The Mailbox. An odd place, this; a small bar leading to a tiny downstairs room which was possibly the smallest venue I’ve been to in ages, including Cardiff’s boxy Gwdihw! I checked out openers Manners, on at 8, although I only gave it 3 of their smothered synth pulse-driven songs as they were threatening to induce a Merz-like migraine! Escaped upstairs to the bar and followed the Swindon town game on the BBC website before popping back down at half-time, coincidentally just as main support EZTV took the small stage. A new York trio, they were immediately a considerable improvement, weaving a wide-eyed and innocent Summery vibe with some lovely C86 jangle pop, which recalled a US BMX Bandits or Adam Schlesinger’s side project Ivy. The smooth harmonies of “Dust In The Sky” were almost Gigolo Aunts-like, and the resonant guitar riffery in the Byrdsian “Temporary Gold” also recalled The (UK) Wallflowers’ excellent “Blushing Girl, Nervous Smile”. Then, after some political chat (“we’ve got a recession special on the merch ‘cos the whole world’s going to shit!”), they checked time with the soundman, and before launching into the fine ascending riff-powered “Goodbye Morning” they remarked, “still time to make this set great again!” No worries there, gents, this was a very fine appetiser. Nicely done!

Another quick upstairs break and a quick chat with EZTV vocalist Ezra, a Velvet Crush/ Teenage Fanclub aficionado (no surprise there!), then I took a wander back down and quickly eased my way to the front, as Merchandise were just kicking off their opener “Lonesome Sound”, the chugging, moody best number from their current CD. Immediately it was apparent that this would be a different sonic experience from their recorded output, as they were set up as a conventional 4-piece, eschewing the echoing loops, layers and effects, and even employing an actual drummer behind the kit instead of the drum machine featured on the album! The angular Carson Cox was already off on his own head trip (introducing the slow sway of “Crystal Cage” with the comment, “we’re gonna play some new ones, and some old ones, and mix them together in a confusing way!”), but his deliciously doleful, half-murmured baritone, more exposed “live” than on CD, was immediately a feature, dovetailing perfectly in with partner-in-crime Dave Vassalotti’s resonant and often cacophonous guitar crescendos. The lazy haze and drumbeat stomp of “Green Lady” (“about smoking pot!” according to Cox) was followed with a superb dance-along “Little Killer”, the chugging Smiths-like beat underpinning one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in many a year. Cox had made reference to the upcoming US election prior to this number, prompting a (hopefully ironic, surely?) chant of “Trump!” from the locals, so quite rightly closed that door with a sardonic, “that’s the last time I bring up politics!”

A stately “True Monument”, with its towering riff a feature, preceded the true highlight tonight – a lengthy and sinuous “Anxiety’s Door”, which saw me throw shapes down the front as Cox urged the front rows to dance to this metronomic and thrillingly absorbing epic. Superb! I’d honestly have been happy with that, but a couple of subsequent numbers, including the funky newie “Flower Of Sex” (“for the kids down the front – you’ve got too much damn energy!”) and a brooding finale of “Time”, saw the set stretch to 1 hour 15. Fine stuff overall, though, with the tunes, stripped of their recorded effects, standing up superbly.

Grabbed my breath before a few quick words with the Merch boys. Both Dave and Carson appeared to remember me from previous gigs (I guess old greying blokes throwing themselves around down the front are at a premium at their shows!), Carson humorously commenting, “you’re from Wigan, right?” “Swindon” “Yeah, Swindon, that’s right…” A quick chat about my recent trip to his home state of Florida with this always gregarious and affable chap ensued, before I excused myself to hit the road just after 11. Good thing too, as motorway closures, no diversion signs, then gridlocked Worcestershire roads at the dead of night, saw me finally and wearily hitting the sack at a red-eyed 1.30. Yikes! However, always worth it for this splendid band Merchandise, although I hope Carson makes good on his promise to play closer to the ‘don (Bristol?) next time!

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