There comes a time in every boy’s life when he grows into a mature man and asks himself, “Where was I in 1989?” Well, to start with, I was naked, naked and in the shower, and in kindergarten (though not simultaneously). Rather, I was taking a shower during the great San Francisco earthquake of ’89. And for all that day’s mass destruction, my only memory is of the world seeming to fall apart as I wished not for clean underwear, but simply for any underwear at all.
But let me escape this quasi-child-porn digression and explain how it carries the smallest pertinence to Merge Records’s fifteenth anniversary compilation, Old Enough 2 Know Better: Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance remember 1989 as the year they formed Superchunk and founded one of the strongest indie labels of the nineties.
With Old Enough 2 Know Better, Merge, host to some of the greatest indie acts from 1989 to present — Neutral Milk Hotel, Magnetic Fields, Superchunk, Spoon — has achieved that elusive balance between capturing an era, remaining fresh and timeless, and bringing something new to the foray that makes the past come alive. Spanning three CDs and including sixty-one songs, Merge has blessed us with a time capsule that is instantly listenable and catchy. It’s a huge gift to indie fans and an even bigger gift to those who can’t tell their Superchunk from their Supergrass. Plus, it’s nearly being given away, selling for about the cost of a single disc.
The strength of Old Enough, which isn’t organized in any specific way, stems from the variety and quality of the label’s bands. Divided not entirely between charming lo-fi indie pop/rock and pseudo-folk from the likes of Neutral Milk and M.Ward, the collection stands out for its accessibility. Much of the music feels sunny (Lambchop’s “Your Fucking Sunny Day”), whimsical (Ladybug Transistor’s “Oceans in the Hall”), or celebratory (David Kilgour’s “Today Is Gonna Be Mine”). And the cover art, David Horvath’s insane Groening-ish cartoon orgy-of-happiness, perfectly fits the compilation’s feel.
The first CD, the is the most rock-oriented of the three, features great nuggets of nineties nostalgia, including Superchunk’s “Cool,” Guv’ner’s “Break a Promise,” and Spent’s “Excuse Me While I Drink Myself To Death.” Special props to Merge for picking “Long Vermont Roads” from the Magnetic Fields when they could’ve easily gone with something more recognizable from 69 Love Songs. Hearing the song’s lo-fi Casio reminds me of the poignancy that accompanies any great band’s shift to a major label.
The second CD is lighter/folkier/more country; M.Ward, Matt Suggs, and the Clean all stand out. This distinction is blurred by appearances by heavier acts such as Versus and Imperial Teen. The disc could stand to lose the twenty-second death-metal of Breadwinner’s “Exploder,” and I disagree with the decision to include Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” It may competently rock, but “Song Against Sex” far and away loses to “Naomi” as the best song off On Avery Island. And where are the Squirrel Nut Zippers? Still, these errors disappear amongst sixty-one great songs.
Here’s the best part: As if Merge couldn’t be any more divine with this compilation, the third CD contains rare and unreleased tracks that easily rival the greatest songs on the first two discs. Wanna hear the Angels of Epistemology cover the Buzzcocks’s “Fiction Romance”? Have fun. Spoon covering Yo La Tengo’s “Decora”? Yeah, that’s here, too, along with the Essex Green’s country cover “Mendocino,” the Rosebuds’s perfectly bouncy “Happily Ever After,” and David Kilgour’s moody “On the Outside.”
True, with so many great bands, it would be hard for Merge to fuck this collection up. But Old Enough 2 Know Better surpasses all expectations, mixing great hits with lesser-heard material and uber-influential indie stars with the never-to-be-famous in a retrospective that makes you look back at Merge’s fifteen-year span and say, “Thank God.” That, at least, rolls off your tongue more easily than “Thank Superchunk.”