“Humans have a knack for choosing exactly what’s worse for them.”
Records should come in glass, locked boxes that read, “In case of (blank), break glass,” to properly gauge the circumstance — and severity — for given application. Then people wouldn’t waste so many good albums.
Sure, we can still have those summer-fling records, the kind that encapsulate youth and also stay there with a scrunched-up face that says, “I ever dated that?”
There can certainly be records for pop and abandonment, guilty pleasures that come in your Happy Meal. But I’m talking next level, child-proof packaging: “In case of divorce, break glass.” “In case of quarter-life crisis, break glass.” “In case you’re a failure to your parents, break glass.” “In case you’ve graduated from un-nuanced and unchallenging genres, break glass.”
Achievement unlocked: mid-level crisis existential records — because I wasn’t ready to be a failure earlier on.
The Merbabies are a strange band — they’re not instantly appealing. This is usually the point in a review where phrases like “ragged charm” would be tossed in to describe frontman C. Charles Bowden’s less-than-adequate vocals. The production is certainly dated, giving modern listens a metallic thinness yellowed by tobacco — the vocals sit a notch below everything else, providing a distant effect. When combined with Bowden’s sincerity, it seems to beckon you from the other end of a tunnel. This does result in a showcase of the instrumental strength rather than the strained vocals. The songs are diverse but maintain a distinctive Western twang as they span indie and hard rock, surf and outright country.
As a three-piece, there’s little foray beyond the initial components of guitar, bass and drums — only the angelic lift of a single female voice on “Long Distance” — but the band is waterproof-tight. Each member expertly lends their voice through their playing to elevate the songs to a level of musicianship that seems to contradict their straight-forward structures and lyrical whimsy.
There are no canned strings or organ swells, no tinkling keys in a genre that seems to nowadays demand it; the Merbabies accomplish a very full sound through an on-the-spot rhythm section and layers of effect-laden guitar that noodles, distorts and winds.
“In case you’re going through a grunge meets surfer cowboy stage, break glass.”
Some records hit you right off the bat. Perfect time and place. There’s an instant connection that can make music the transcendent experience at its most affecting. Other times, you just aren’t ready for it yet. But, rather than seeing certain records with a curve of difficulty, we often see them with a freshness date: Impress me in 15 seconds or I’ll have wasted my time.
And music is only decreasing in value. The more ways we have to consume instantly, the more portals we have for consumption, the more detached we get. Each nerve that brings us some artificial signal only gets a piece of ourselves in return.
“In case of the need for human warmth in plain speak word blankets, break glass.”
But should it be any different? Should we really try hard to appreciate something that isn’t immediate? Should we, in essence, waste the first few listens on unfulfilling playback as we claw at the hope for a grower? The off-chance gestating seed, firmly planted, to burrow through your artifice, complex and membrane into something powerful, memorable and catchy? Or is it possible our soil isn’t even fertile, the climate too harsh for what could otherwise be a redwood in our playback.
Dinosaur Jr. has described themselves as “ear bleeding country,” but the term is more apt here as Bowden and company share a bit more than a passing resemblance to Mascis’ guitar rock trio (the nasally voice amidst the fuzz the most direct comparison). Here, the Merbabies truly inject their noise with twang, their ear-bleeding with a true country presence that seems more pertinent.
But when you’re 14, the cliché’s of “King of the Hill” country, or the fear that you’ll turn into Larry the Cable Guy, can be a powerful deterrent.
“In case image stops driving your listening habits, break glass.”
The lyrics are mostly relational high and lows. They come off with a charming clumsiness, like a barstool Romeo — someone more traveled than read. On paper they seem trite, if not playful; but there’s something affecting about a song of unrequited love that builds to the refrain, “If we could breathe beneath the sea / Would you swim with me, forever? / We could see some merbabies / Only you and me together.” Of all the lover’s heavens, all the utopias, all the forevers — just grow some gills and explore the deep, this after he compares himself to a tree to hang around all summer.
On “Lemonade,” love is compared to just that — the sweet-tongue lies of the temptress to sugar as Bowden promises to wait for the perfect lemonade of his soul mate. Break up songs don’t come more country-western than giving someone “the boot, girl,” — and that’s about the time I was checking to see if this was some alternative “Toy Story” soundtrack.
“In case of love sickness — and a friend to sing it to you — break glass.”
Alongside the oddly cute courtship songs, the faith displayed on the record seems well-lived in: “Falling down again / And I’m beggin’ You stretch out Your hand / C’mon won’t you help me up? / Yeah, You said You would inside Your Book” is certainly an affable approach to prayer and scripture. But the most interesting example comes from their sophomore release EP, Indio, and another breakup song, “Sovereignty”: “It’s not me who understands / Predestination always has the upper hand / That’s just the way that it was planned / From all eternity.” This may be the first heartache ever soothed by predestination in song.
A Calvinist love-hymn dipped in the serenity of the Buddhist, it just so happens to be the best song in the Merbabies discography. You not only accept your fate as cosmically written, you acknowledge its place in all of eternity; the title “Sovereignty” sums it up.
“In case of serious doctrinal contemplation (in a pop song), break glass.”
And maybe that’s all it is, anyway. Maybe not — I definitely cling to freedom of thought and action — but maybe it all fits into a greater wheelhouse. I can’t say for sure as my outlook provides shades of control and coincidence and diving trust, but when I was 14 I stumbled on a picture of a girl on a tricycle, like you might see in any family photo album, labeled: “The Merbabies.” Charmed. There was something here. I bought their two (and only) releases — having never heard a song — at the deep-seated risk of a bargain bin scrapped three dollars.
“They’re a country band!” And I threw the album behind me, like someone had just poisoned my drink.
Almost 15 years later, and Someone was looking out for me that day. Predestination always has the upper hand.
I just needed a few more scuffed knees to get myself there.