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RECORD REVIEWS CHRIS HERRINGTON, Editor

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A landmark indie label looks back.

Old Enough To Know Better:

15 Years of Merge Records

Various Artists

(Merge Records)

This three-disc sampler from Chapel Hill's Merge Records amounts to an audio biography of what we call "indie rock."

Merge was founded by Laura Balance and Mac McCaughan as an outlet for their band Superchunk and a few other local Chapel Hill comrades. While the vast majority of indie labels withered into obscurity, Balance and McCaughan's modest enterprise flourished into one of the true taste-making outlets in '90s rock, giving the world records by bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, the Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Destroyer.

This collection boasts at least one track from every single artist ever to record for the label. The first two discs compile previously released "Merge Classics" with the third disc containing previously unreleased tracks or songs specially recorded for Old Enough. Two things in particular make Merge special: First, they're fully independent. Merge never sold any portion of its soul to a major. Some other indie labels of Merge's era can't say this. Secondly, the label remains vital. Post-2000 releases by Dan Bejar's Destroyer, the Clientele, and the Rosebuds have been consistently great. Stalwarts such as Lambchop and the Magnetic Fields keep releasing critically lauded records. Merge has also undertaken some admirable rescue missions. Last year's eponymous release by the Buzzcocks was much better than it should have been.

All of this is reflected on the very thorough Old Enough. And the future looks hot for Merge: We can look forward to upcoming releases by the amazing Radar Bros. and a reissue project involving the first three Dinosaur Jr. albums plus EPs (the Homestead/SST years). My glass is raised. -- Andrew Earles

Grade: A

Automato

Automato

(Coup De Grace)

I have yet to be truly disappointed by the hip-hop coming from Coup D'etat Entertainment, the label that has generously given the world Akrobatik and the Haiku D'etat crew. Coup D'etat has also provided some time and space to the live-action hip-hop group Automato, whose eponymous debut is a cosmic experience: It's dense, twinkling, and wonderful if you know where to look and have a little patience with the empty spaces.

The musicians in Automato seem to have studied LL Cool J's epochal MTV Unplugged performance from years ago, and their man-made groove also evokes some of the incidental sci-fi sounds of Casios and '80s video games. The MC makes up in self-awareness what he lacks in imaginative wordplay, and he's absolutely indefatigable as well. His nerdy, honkybonic stream-of-consciousness lyrics are concerned with everything that matters except maybe sex, with a special emphasis on memories and metaphors for the passage of time. After his boast that "I used to play football/Even when I was a foot tall," my favorite lyrical moment comes when he realizes that "Every moment has the Hudson in it."

At times, Automato rides their groove with a singularity Fela Kuti might find a bit much, but they never lose focus as a group with piano, bass, drums, and a consciousness. "The Single" and "Cool Boots" in particular build and build to suitably joyful, suitably group-friendly percussive climaxes. --Addison Engelking

Grade: A-

Conductor

The Comas

(Yep Roc)

To say that the Comas' debut album, Conductor, is ambitious is a considerable understatement: In addition to creating a self-assured sound that draws on garage, glam, and Flaming Lips-esque art rock without sounding derivative, the band has made a movie to accompany these 11 songs (including the hidden bonus track). They enlisted animator Brent Bonacorso and included a free DVD with copies of Conductor.

Leading off the album, "The Science of Your Mind" is a potent kiss-off to a departing lover: "May your days be long and cold/May your mirror come back old." But the burn in the lyrics is softened by the eclectic and softly eccentric rock, a dynamic that runs throughout the album. Similarly, the mood of Conductor changes from wistful to resigned to upbeat to aggressive: "Employment" rocks a Cheap Trick chorus. "Hologram" glams out on paranoia and self-deprecation. "Dirty South" drips with alt-country pedal steel and a plaintive guitar line that stalks singer Andy Herod's vocals.

Mixing whimsy and wonder with dread and bitterness, Conductor sounds ideal for animation, and Bonacorso's movie is technically impressive. However, the album sounds even better on its own. The movie is a nice addition, but Herod's songs don't need the visuals to convey their emotions.

--Stephen Deusner

Grade: A-

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