– THE CASTLE HOTEL, MANCHESTER –
3 November 2016
“Welcome to the public library” quips Carson Cox as he shuffles about the dimly lit stage in the bowels of The Castle Hotel. Merchandise, hailing from Tampa, Florida are about to take us on a journey of eighties influenced nostalgia. The original line-up was a three-piece playing with a drum machine. Then for their debut album After the End released in 2014 they became five. Tonight they are down to four with founding members Dave Vassalotti, whose moustachioed look is right on the money, on guitar and the tall imposing figure of Patrick Brady on Bass. A mystery drummer completes the ranks with Cox occupying centre stage.
The band is straight down to business with opening head-bopper ‘Lonesome Sound’. One of a few tracks showcased tonight from their latest cut A Corpse Wired for Sound, released in September of this year on 4AD. There is a running theme of loneliness on the new album, so it’s not surprising that there are hints of this on ‘Lonesome Sound’. Melancholic melody backed with brooding yet bouncy guitars as Cox murmurs “…Just let me drown”.
Over the next five songs or so Cox abandons his guitar in favour of playing the mic-wielding front man, something he pulls off with a sort of awkward confidence. New songs ‘Crystal Cage’ and ‘End of the Week’ impact comes across as big as they do on the album, particularly the latter as the band create a massive, droning racket in the coda that immerses us in a cacophony of beautiful, head-fucking sound storm. ‘Right back to the start’ is a slight departure which changes the mood to a warped steady groove as Cox invites us to ‘dance if you want to’. Merchandise revisits a handful of songs from After the End, arguably their most poppy work. ‘Little Killer’ is a straight forward and catchy guitar riff laden song that injects some pace into the set and displays Vassalotti’s ability to write a memorable hook.
The excellent ‘Anxiety’s Door’ garners the biggest reception of the night and rightly so – taken from their 2013 break-through EP Totale Night. Cox’s doleful vocals ring out over decorated oodles of shimmering psych-guitars. “That one always sounds better in Manchester” Oh, Carson you charmer. To contrast the energetic performance of ‘Anxiety’s Door’ the first notes of seven minute epic ‘After the End’ are heard from Cox and his rich baritone vocals come through noticeably clearer for the first time tonight as he displays his surprisingly good vocal range.
They end the main set with ‘Flower of Sex’ and encore, due to popular shout outs, with ‘Time’. Both tunes again showcase Vassalotti’s impressive ability. Though he has suffered sound technicalities throughout the night, Vassalotti still manages to come through as the beating heart of the band; with gothic soaked guitar lines and killer counter melodies, I believe him to be one of the most underrated guitarists around today. As Cox declares somewhat coyly “If you love someone, reach out and touch them” Vassalotti duly obliges and touches his shoulder – it’s quite a sweet moment that almost goes unnoticed.
As Cox mimics a Mancunian cry of “I luv you” and admiration for location “I love the north” he is clearly aiming to please. Far be it from me to criticize the man, I have a lot of respect for him, however, moments like this and referring to himself as ‘Tex’ when introducing the band, seems to suggest Cox portraying someone who he believes we want to see. Whether he knows it or not, we don’t want him to be anyone else except himself.
Up to this point in their existence as Merchandise, they have gained a reputation for being ‘the best band you’ve never heard of’; hailed by critics and signed to 4AD but playing modestly sized venues in the UK. This is the third time I’ve seen them live and I can state, without doubt, it was their best performance – by a long shot. They have at their disposal a line-up that fits well and a back catalogue of songs that are strong. Merchandise are matured and ready for greatness.
This review was originally published on Silent Radio