Photo Gregory Bojorquez
“By the way, we’re not lesbians,” says Bryony Atkinson. The singer-bassist of Merrick is lounging along with guitarist-singer partner Inara George at the band’s favorite eatery on Melrose when she makes the random announcement. “Not that we care what people think, but at the same time I just don’t want everyone thinking we’re trying to be the new Indigo Girls.”
The 20s-ish duo couldn’t be more different. George is smiley, sincere to a fault and preternaturally calm. On the other hand, Bryony rhymes with irony — she’s got a rapier wit and tons of opinions, and is picky about the food. “But we are so lucky to have found each other,” she says. George is quick to agree. “We’ve both been in a bunch of bands, so we know how much of a nightmare collaborating can be. But for us it’s like we finish each other’s sentences.”
Crafters of spare, irresistible vignettes underpinned by honeyed vocal strata, Merrick make songs that function like snapshots into the subconscious as they drift and eddy inside your skull and, in the occasional fan, cause obsession. On the self-funded, self-titled, self-everything debut, “Ladders to Fire” is a lengthy ode to the human condition, aloft with sweet vocal counterpoint that recalls the Deal sisters. “Pageant” could be a May Faire madrigal with its jaunty acoustic arpeggiations, while the unspooling dreamery of “Infinity” couldn’t better capture its title’s notion. Finally, “Carousel” — staked with the doleful bow strokes of a standup bass more akin to the wheeze of a squeeze-box — is a rocket ship straight to your pleasure center.
So why bury a gem at the back of the CD?
“They’re all gems,” George enthuses. “We write every one of our songs with the intent of making totally commercial pop. In our minds, these are accessible songs. If we had our way, though, the songs would be much more confused and chaotic.”
“There are a lot more layers to our songs than you can tell at first,” Atkinson adds. “It’s like, I write my song, then Inara writes her song, and we put them together — you’re actually getting two songs in one.”
Newly minted and still sans label, Drive Around Fast a Lot and Hard Driving Club — peppered with lap steel and fleshed out by the lazy bowing of the signature upright bass — maintains a lighter-than-air quality the debut sometimes achieved but never sustained. Only the hooky “Sure Look” approaches rocking out. “This record is more focused, I think,” Atkinson says, swishing gelato around her mouth. “And even though it isn’t anything like the first one — there’s no mistaking that it’s Merrick.”
Merrick’s current inability to score a record deal is especially surprising because, aside from the music, they’ve got all the right tools for capturing an A&R scout’s attention: three songs in the Owen Wilson film The Minus Man; a track on the critically lauded Neil LaBute film Your Friends and Neighbors, in which Atkinson makes a brief appearance (“You have to rent the film to hear our music, because there isn’t a soundtrack”); airplay by KCRW’s Nic Harcourt of not just one or two, but every friggin’ track from the debut. And last but not least, they’re young and cute.
“It’s not like we haven’t sent out our demo to everyone,” George says, “but they don’t know what to make of it . . .” “They won’t touch us with a 10-foot pole,” Atkinson cuts in.
But the harder the band aim for commercial viability, the more they end up sounding just like Merrick. That’s good for us, but it’s bad if you gotta eat, and the band’s financial hole keeps getting deeper.
“We’re still in debt from the first record,” George says. “We took out a loan from my mom, but I still totally have to pay her back.”
After a revolving door of less-than-inspiring backup bandmates, Merrick finally have something of a regular lineup, but their violinist, upright bassist and drummer are clearly musicians for hire. “Even when we perform live, I feel like it’s us vs. the band,” says George. But luck has been smiling on Merrick lately. “We were trying to sell this one guy our CD after a show, and he was going, ‘Well, you should just give it to me.’ We needed the money, but we gave him a copy anyway, and he turned out to be the main buyer for Virgin Megastores, and he added us to his list.” (The band also landed an upcoming Virgin in-store performance.)
“We’re learning so much, because we’ve had to do it ourselves,” George says. “It’s the best way, I think, but then it’s not like we had a choice. But who cares — we’re having a ball.”
Merrick plays at Spaceland, Sunday, December 9.