Black Carl and Mergence Show the Valley's Stranger Side Outdoors in Tempe
Tempe is running out of venues. The Clubhouse disintegrated in 2012 after a gang-related shooting; Rocky Point Cantina disappeared after a reality show bad trip; most recently, Stray Cat closed suddenly, announcing the bad news on its last day in business.
Which is not to say that's why Valley staples Mergence and Black Carl will be playing under the proverbial mill, rather than in a proverbial Mill Avenue venue — only that they will, in an outdoor show on the Hayden Flour Mill's north lawn.
It's sort of an unconscious flexing of put-upon Phoenix's advantages as a music town; few other cities, for all their vaunted scenes and talent hotbeds, can casually schedule an outdoor show in the middle of November. What's more important is that, having done that, Phoenix can also produce bands as interesting as Mergence and Black Carl.
Those Vibrant Young People Are Dead, Mergence's 2011 debut, gave a strikingly thorough account of the band's ingredients — Adam Bruce's classic-rock howl, the oscillating waver of Yod Paul's guitar, the light hold they leave on tempo and dynamics.
At the time, Bruce told us that their follow-up would have to be "an American record," something that could support a broader tour and broader ambitions. What's been so interesting about the first few songs to escape from Songs for Humans, that still-in-progress follow-up, is just how strange their conception of an American record must be.
"White Bark" and "The Nerve," both accompanied by disorienting videos, are dispatches from a band getting weirder. The shifting tempos of the first record have collided in the second; while the jittery guitar riffs and drum sounds of "White Bark" eventually coalesce, as if by magic or accident, into a concise chorus, "The Nerve" sets them free all at once to pursue their own droning interests.
Bruce told us he did some of the writing for Songs for Humans in the desert; it sounds like it. While most of Mergence's classic-rock forebears came back from their psychedelic experiences pretty happy about the whole thing, "The Nerve" is the sound of a band that's a little more ambivalent about all that isolation.
Black Carl's "desert soul" takes the same liberties with its own source material. Emma Pew's knowing, dynamic voice and the groove it bounces over are plenty soulful, but there's an absence in their songs — the space where the Big, Indifferent City would go in a soul song is empty, and the lovers begging each other to come home from there or just go away are much more reserved here, much less willing to combine heated performance with heated admissions. "Shine It Deep," the first song in a string of singles that led to 2013's The Wheel LP, opens with a two-line syllogism in favor of keeping those closest to you at a safe distance:
"Things fall apart when you pick up the pieces / Moving in together turns diamonds to leases."
Nothing quite sticks together, and even when it does it sours, therefore Black Carl. This is soul — and all the sex and theatrical angst and hazy black-and-white establishing shots that come with it — for people whose internal Aretha Franklin is mediated by sarcasm and sharp glances.
Nothing under the mill will be exactly the sum of its influences; Mergence won't quite be classic rock, and Black Carl won't quite be soul, and seeing them both — along with The Prowling Kind and Bears of Manitou — under the mill won't be quite like seeing all of them at some long-lost Mill Avenue venue. That unfamiliar edge to the proceedings is exactly what will make them worth watching.
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