The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small – John Cook, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

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As I sit listening to the Nixon record by Lambchop, adrift in thoughts of how I lived without this record for the nine years since its release, I also reflect on all I took from Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small. Before this book I was just a newbie, suffering an on-and-off relationship with Neutral Milk Hotel, knowing Merge largely as “the label that put out The Arcade Fire” and that's run by Superchunk. Turns out I nailed the broad strokes, but I'm all the wiser after a week with this book.

John Cook's style is informed, but unimposing, allowing a loose oral history to do most of the work. That work is done mostly by Superchunk, the flagship band with the anthems that inspired the chapter titles. While you can't fault Cook for telling the story of Merge based around its founders, the interesting people come along for chapters dedicated to bands not named

Ever since a fellow music writer in college gave me a mix CD of 90's
indie-rock, I've championed “Slack Motherfucker” as one of my
all-time classic songs. I listen to On The Mouth
just as much as Kill The Moonlight. But the life
of two quiet southerners who eschew the extravagance of rock fame to stay home hand-packaging
records does not make a thrilling tale. It's as though Cook is trying to make
the gradual dissipation of Superchunk's career as significant as the
seminal records that elevated the label.

Unfortunately, it's the most
intriguing figures in the story that are the most difficult to
interview. Jeff Magnum is the ultimate hermit hero. He gives Merge
two of it's most coveted records as a part of Neutral Milk Hotel and
then disappears into the backwoods of Georgia. Rounding up everyone
who contributed interviews to the story must have been an
overwhelming chore. Oddly enough, Cook seems enamored by the ones who barely contributed. He intermittently devotes odes to East
River Pipe, the bedroom project of FM Cornog, as a metaphor for the
importance of remaining independent. It bleeds truth, but it's the
insight into the conflicted relationship between tiny labels and
corporations that speak the loudest.

Perhaps most rewardingly, Our Noise is a guide to the story beneath the grunge era. It's a magical world that does not involve The Offspring, Green Day or Weezer, although Squirrel Nut Zipper and Harvey Danger make appearances. I wonder if my college friend was aware that nearly every song from his mix included a Merge artist, save for a few Dismemberment Plan and Pavement songs. Rightfully so, Merge got a chance with nearly all of our indie-90's heroes. Despite declining to officially participate in Our Noise,
it's Magnum's brief words in an email to Mac and Laura explaining
himself that sum up the Merge story: “It gladdens
me to see that it's the human labels like Merge who are fully alive
in this moment, while the giants of the music industry are all eating
shit. May it forever be so.”