(Welcome to tbt*'s Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we're spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Today: Underground indie/punk/New Wave outfit Merchandise.)
As Merchandise plays its first Tampa show in months at Mojo Books and Music, they seem at home.
Singer Carson Cox, who sports a croon and coif akin to Morrissey, dances with a throng of women in the front of the crowd. He vaults the store's coffee bar. He plays guitar while lying on the floor that's been slicked by the heels of hipsters.
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If Merchandise seems at home, that's because the band members are. The noisy pop/post-punk quartet, which also includes Dave Vassalotti, Patrick Brady and new drummer Elsner Nino, hails from Tampa. And following the release of last year's Children of Desire, write-ups from Pitchfork and Spin and several festival dates, the group is poised to be the biggest band to come from the bay area in a while.
The members stem from several local bands — some still active, some long since defunct. Among them are Church Whip, Nazi Dust, Neon Blud, Divisions, Cult Ritual and The Dry County, and that's not even counting Vassalotti's solo work.
Mojo Books and Music owner Dan Drummond said he knew the members from Neon Blud, and it wasn't until hearing them on WMNF around 2 a.m. while working late that he discovered Merchandise.
"I said, 'Wow, this sounds great!' " he said. "I had never heard of them before this, even though Carson and Dave used to come to the store all the time," he said.
Drummond, a self-described follower of the group who has traveled to see them at out-of-town gigs like SXSW, said they've become more of a fully formed band over time.
"When I first saw them, they had a drum machine and they were just a local underground phenomenon," he said. "Most of their shows would be attended by the same people who were their friends."
Their sound has changed over the years as well. Their self-titled 2009 EP is a 20-minute blast of muscular post-punk. Meanwhile, Children of Desire is a reverb-drenched record in the vein of Morrissey, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Monday nights at The Castle. And this year's Totale Nite adds saxophone, harmonica and Neil Young and Crazy Horse-esque feedback to the mix.
It was after Children of Desire last July that the band received a nearly 2,500-word Pitchfork profile, where they talked about Tampa's storage-unit scene, abandoning straight-edge and more.
Soon Merchandise's own profile grew massively. They were courted by festivals like SXSW and the CMJ Music Marathon. Britain's magazine NME named them the No. 1 most exciting band of 2013.
But they've also been the subject of controversy and criticism. The band alienated some of their fans this year when Church Whip, which includes Cox and Vassalotti, named their tour "Raping the East." Some venues dropped the band, and in Raleigh, N.C., their tires were slashed and the words "rape apoligists" (sic) were spray-painted on their tour van.
With increased popularity comes increased scrutiny as well. After naming Merchandise one of the best new artists of June, Spin gave Totale Nite a 4 out of 10 and "Worst New Music" designation, claiming that "Cox's vocal grain might have potential if he'd wake up and do more than mumble like a soggy noodle bored by his own noodledom."
Still, the band — whose members declined to comment — continues to gain acclaim from other outlets, with perhaps their biggest booster remaining Pitchfork, which gave Totale Nite an 8.0. out of 10. This July, they'll play Pitchfork Music Festival along with big names like Björk, R. Kelly, M.I.A. and Belle and Sebastian.
The band leaves for a string of Europe dates next month. But before that, they'll play another local show at Stoney's Bar on May 5 at 8 p.m. with Wymyn's Prysyn and Blood Wave.
-- Jimmy Geurts, tbt*