MY ROOMMATE has a Smiths tattoo. When I first heard Merchandise's "Become What You Are," I hollered at him, "I think I found the next Morrissey!"
"Yeah," he chuckled, huddling by the speakers. "Maybe if he fronted the Jesus and Mary Chain." Puffed up comparisons aside, the song floored me. That voice: a deep, assured, but haunted croon in an odd register, elbowing and rising above the clutter. A robust tenor with off-kilter phrasing, bloody turns of phrase, and pure force. The music, too: big guitars, braided, shimmering and unfurling amid a simple motorik groove. Building but never breaking. Ten minutes of melody adorned with beautiful noise, becoming an inductive, almost transcendental, meditation. An anthem for outsiders, heart-hardened and youthful; lost, longing lovers just hanging on. A grand and naked melancholy.
After emerging from this initial trance—which continues to captivate on each subsequent listen—I was stunned to learn Merchandise are from Tampa, Florida.
Tampa is fucking strange. Last summer I spent a week there covering the Republican National Convention and left feeling like the city was not unlike the candidate: stratified and hollow. Under other circumstances, Tampa seemed like a place Mitt Romney would be very much at home—which, by any measure, would not seem like an accessible incubator of stirring art.
But, of course, place is a big part of the reason. Art responds to its surroundings. And while a lush forest is full of similar seeds, a lone flower sometimes sprouts from the cracks in the sidewalk.
Merchandise's principals—singer Carson Cox, guitarist David Vassalotti, bassist Patrick Brady—grew up in Tampa's hardcore scene, pretty much the only alternative scene there was in town. Otherwise, they had little access to contemporary live music. Bands on the national touring circuit rarely came through. Heavy and grizzled scuzz was all there was. Cox, Vassalotti, and Brady played in loads of gnarly bands, from punk to power-violence, vegan to straight-edge to flat-out wasted, in venues like skateparks and burned out storage units—the kind of places teenagers gather to thrash against a seemingly intractable and destitute future laid out before them.
Instead of bolting, however, Cox and Vassalotti dug in. They recorded constantly, Cox acting as producer and lyricist with Vassalotti as the preeminent player. As contemporary bands outside the hardcore scene rarely, if ever, played Tampa, the duo foraged for dollar-bin records. They consumed all kinds of sounds foreign to the hardcore community, from Neu! to Ornette Coleman. And while this greater palette fed their sensibility, punk shows taught Merchandise how to perform.
Dealing so often with inadequate equipment and underpowered PA systems, Cox cultivated pure vocal strength. Even in the hardcore bands, Cox says, he always sang and never screamed. (Cox was first taught by his mother, mostly by singing along with traditional musicals.) Even on well-equipped systems, Cox's lips remain glued to the microphone grill.
And where guitarist and co-conspirator Vassalotti is reserved in conversation and cedes the spotlight to Cox, he speaks pointedly with his guitar onstage. Performing, Vassalotti thrashes about as the newly christened foursome, now with live drummer Elsner Niño, pushes tempos.
Seeing them live at the Echo in LA last week, there were moments I longed for more of the lilt of their records, and wished at times Cox would be un-tethered from his guitar, free to expound on the wrenching physical dramas so prominent in his lyrics. But it is no knock. The show contained stirring moments, including "Become What You Are" and "Time" (both of which are found on Children of Desire, which is available free on the band's website).
After all, no 26-year-olds—or anyone, really—could or should be crowned heir to the Smiths. Merchandise can only be themselves, which, it turns out, is still something quite compelling.
A week removed from spots on coveted SXSW showcases and the supposed interest of revered and taste-making labels, Merchandise continue to build steam nationally. Any suggestions to relocate from Tampa, however, fall on deaf punk-rock ears.
"Fuck that," says Cox. "I don't want to move to another American city that's bigger than Tampa because I feel like they are all the fucking same."
He goes on: "It's fun to come to LA. It's fun to come to Brooklyn. But I can't imagine being a person there."