There are many frustrating things about reissue culture and the hoarder/collector mentality (obscurity for the sake of it), but I have to say, I love how it often focuses a bright and long overdue light on corners of music that perhaps we weren’t ready for then, but now, sound so pristine, preserved, and new. (No comfort to the performer, but what is, really?) This time the spotlight has fallen on a long disused crypt in Denver (what?) Colorado, housing the remains of the Soul Merchants, an all-but-forgotten “psychedelic goth” band, who burned fiercely for about two years, apparently amassing a Guided By Voices-level impressive 100 songs in that all-too-brief tenure, before disappearing, shattered and exhausted in the face of what one would assume to be popular indifference toward a band this challenging and fervently out of step. The Soul Merchants ended it all with a show at the South By Southwest festival in Austin in 1987. This compilation collects the “best of” two years worth of constant four-track recording sessions – two discs – boasting a fabulous sound quality (jutting against competing studio efforts from other bands, no doubt) and a towering creative ambition.
Look, there’re a lot of stupid bullshit connotations surrounding the “g” word, but let me just say that the Soul Merchants are gothic in all the best senses of the word. The way the Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie, Fields of the Nephilim, Alien Sex Fiend, the Cure, and Joy Division were all gothic (yeah, yeah, argue away, but c’mon, deep down). This is sad, questing, passionate, epic, confused music. The inspiration of Joy Division (particularly in some vocal delivery, though two or three different vocalists give it the sense of this Pere Ubu/Tombs-esque collective), the Cure circa Head on the Door, and the Mission do loom large – but there is a sense of wide-open spaces and bluesy (but not the blues) depth that give Soul Merchants an extra push – if you listen hard you can hear snatches of the Doors, Black Sabbath, the Bunnymen, postpunk like Gang of Four, Green River, shit I can keep going. But there’s always that essential dramatic darkness.
“Johanna” melds the troubled funk of the Cure’s “Spiderman” with a restless angularity that’s more akin to a suicidal Gang of Four. “Blue Light” combines a delicate, Ian Curtis-aping vocal, with widescreen gothic noir, keening upward and trying to fill the world with thwarted love in the way bands like the Church used to. “Crown of Glory” sounds like an outtake from Closer but instead of cold, brittle dread, it is suffused with lush tortured longing, swooning on velvet couches. The brute “Armored Factions” sounds more like Devo or Alien Sex Fiend. The tangible ache that literally drips from every line of “Cold Dark Bed” – built upon lockstep pulsing percussion with bursts and counterpoints of guitar darting in and out, like a furtive paramour. “When I Smile” plumbs the same self-loathing pits, couched in pinned-pupil funk, like early PIL. “Mental Clay” is just a gorgeous, prickly ballad/reverie with doped-up angel vocals and floating melodies. And let’s just say that it takes guts to call a song “Ceremony” – but they pull it off with a smoky, hazy drift through darkened corridors and wide open spaces- “the golden years are gone/life is just a ceremony” – beautiful lyrics.
How was it that their moment passed so quickly and unfairly? Or does that just make this album all the more perfect?
Smooch Records: www.smoochrecords.com