Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small.
by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance
It is always frustrating when histories of rock and pop music take huge leaps in time and influence from the Ramones and Sex Pistols to Nirvana, as if nothing much of any importance happened in the intervening decade and a half.
The truth is, there were hundreds of small bands and labels chugging along during that time, releasing their own records, crossing the country in broken down vans and serving as musical Johnny Appleseeds, planting musical scenes in areas that were miles away literally and metaphorically from L.A. or New York. Recently more books on these overlooked-at-the-time bands and record labels have been published, sort of a musical version of revisionist history. Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small is a strong addition to this growing shelf of books and a fascinating view into the independent music scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Our Noise follows the fortunes of Merge Records and flagship band Superchunk and serves as an important primer into the indie/punk work ethic. Detailing the ins and outs of running a record label as well as performing in a band, Our Noise is a fascinating oral history detailing the constant struggles and triumphs small labels endured. As Cook notes in a chapter on Superchunk playing Lollapalooza, “The truth was that they wanted to sell as many records as they could without wasting a lot of money, dealing with people they didn’t want to deal with, or ceding control of the band or label.”
While Superchunk forms the bulk of the narrative, chapters on Butterglory, Neutral Milk Hotel, Magnetic Fields, and Lambchop are insanely readable. What major label would gamble and press a three-disc set for Magnetic Fields or provide little-selling bands with a home label and tour support even as the bands continue to underperform sales-wise?
Even if you weren’t interested in the story, the book’s design would keep you happy. Colorful photographs and reproductions of record sleeves and flyers adorn the book, making it irresistible to casual flippers. The record sleeves could have been a book on their own, and the only complaint is that they didn’t display the complete discography.
A compelling history of an underdog label that beat the odds and succeeded (a large portion of this later success can be attributed to Arcade Fire), Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small is a welcome addition to an often overlooked aspect of music history.