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Feature Thu May 10 2007

You'll Know it's Time to Turn the Page When You Hear The Narrator Rock, Like This

"Let's begin now." Remember those book and record sets you had as a kid? Well, maybe not some of you, but for many kids growing up in the '70s and '80s, the mini-LP story record and book set were the highlight of many an evening, where a comforting narrator, along with a helpful sound that would let you know when to turn the page, would guide you through the perils of a Scooby-Doo adventure or re-tell, while you listened with baited breath, the climactic hardware store scene in Gremlins. It's good to find The Narrator picking up where these childhood guides left off. Only this time, kitschy stories have been replaced by jangly guitars and anthemic choruses. It's a nice upgrade.

narratorband.jpg

With All That to the Wall, due out May 15th, locals The Narrator have dropped a second full-length on the Chicagoland faithful and, through the magic of guitarist and vocalist Jesse Woghin's Flameshovel Records, a much wider indie listening public as well. Such Triumph, released in '05, garnered a fair amount of critical praise, and there's no doubt All That to the Wall is a solid step forward for the band. Though drummer Nate Henegan left the project before the album took shape, the group, which besides Woghin includes bassist James Barron, guitarist/vocalist Sam Axelrod, and now new drummer Kevin Vlack, grabbed the drummers from Russian Circles and Oxford Collapse to act as studio fill-ins. Far from sounding like growing pains, the sessions ended up creating a dynamite soundtrack to the band's maturation in the best possible way — All That to the Wall captures, in all its playful glory, the sound of a band unafraid of the future and willing to drench the present in emotive choruses and undeniably catchy hooks.

Opener "Son of the Son of the Kiss of Death," while aping B-horror movies in its title, reserves its place in the "Indie Hits of the Summer" category with the juxtaposition of jubilant guitar lines and a stolid synth drum loop. It also features several moments of whirling guitar freak-out reminiscent of early Modest Mouse and the rough edge of Woghins's vocals, which split lead duty with Axelrod, recalls Isaac Brock's. It's a moment that occurs throughout listening to the record, where clear influences edge their way out of the mix, only to be rustled back into creative control by the band. "SurfJew" can thus take the guitar attacks of Butterglory and Archers of Loaf and then make them decidedly The Narrator's through the explosive call and response of Woghin and Axelrod on the chorus, and the bounce n'rock of "August 32nd" re-calls Nothing Feels Good-era Promise Ring while the epic post-chorus creates a unique vocal swath all The Narrator's own. Certainly building up and tearing down are elements distinctly Narrator as well: "Breaking the Turtle" devolves from a squealing, pounding chorus into a delicate guitar hook duet over precise percussion into its final moments, while "Start Parking" grows and grows from single guitar and vocals to climactic group harmonizing in the outro. By far the best moment on the record is the surprising cover of Dylan's operatic "All the Tired Horses" which, in The Narrator's hands, transforms obscure '70s Dylan into a song that just might make the crossed-arms denizens of the club scene join hands and sway-a-long.

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I recently caught up with Jesse and Sam about the origins of All That to the Wall, which albums they were crushing on at the moment, and how the Dylan cover from Self Portrait made it on the record.

Gapers Block: When did the songs on All That to the Wall take shape? How do you guys go about constructing songs?

The Narrator: Pretty much between Fall '05 and Summer '06. Usually Jesse or I come to practice with some piece of a song and we go from there. It really depends on the song: some are very collaborative and some are much more formed by the time we all start playing our parts. By the time they're done everyone's usually put in some piece of the song.

GB: Drummer Nate Henegan left the group before the recording of "All That to the Wall." How did you get Dave Turncrantz (Russian Circles) and Dan Fetherston (Oxford Collapse) to get involved in the project?

N: Dave had said he would play drums on the record in passing. We made him eat his words. He was actually pretty stoked to do it. I think it was like a weird little challenge for him to learn a bunch of songs in two practices and slay on them. Dan is just a really good friend who really loves our band and it was just a great opportunity to have a heavy bro-down for two days. We owe a lot to both of those guys.

GB: Covering a Dylan's "All the Tired Horses" was a ballsy move, which paid off tremendously in my opinion. What led you guys to tackle this particular track?

N: Thanks. We've all gotten more into Dylan over the last couple of years. When I go home to my parents' house in New York I try to listen to a few of his records at a time that I'm not familiar with, since my father owns every one. A while back I put on Self Portrait and immediately fell in love with that song. I listened to it over and over. Skip ahead a few weeks, we played it at practice, enjoyed it, and wound up closing with it each night on the short tour we did in July 06. My mother likes our version better than Dylan's. I don't know if I agree with her.

GB: A pretty haunting picture graces the cover of All That To the Wall. Is that something someone in the band took? What's the story (if any) behind it?

N: Thanks, again. On our "Support Our Dream Tour" of June '05, we had a really great drive down the West coast from Portland to Arcata, CA. Our friend Drew came with us down to San Francisco. I used to take a lot of photos, but gradually stopped over the years. I think that was the last roll of photos I ever took. We stopped and got some air on the side of the road. It was the perfect day weather-wise, as far as I'm concerned: 60 something degrees and very overcast, but not raining. I wound up taking about 5 pictures and one of them of Drew and James (our bassist) came out pretty good. Then our friend Zach made it greener.

GB: I definitely get a proto-emo feel from your songs — harkening to the "good years" of Promise Ring or Modest Mouse, before the days of mainstream neo-punk sap-pop and Dashboard. Did you guys grow up listening to a healthy diet of Midwestern emo?

N: Yeah, even though most of us didn't grow up here, we all were down with those bands, big time. I still run with a pretty heavy Midwestern posse. The Flameshovel mob rolls deep.

GB: What are your favorite tracks on All That to the Wall? What are your favorite parts to play live?

N: This is like playing favorites with your offspring. If I pick one, the others will grow up to resent me. My favorite parts to play live, though, are the ones that are easiest to play when drunk. Too many drinks equals not too nimble fingers. Sam agrees.

GB: What are your favorite records of 2007 so far?

N: In alphabetical order...
Bill Callahan - Woke on a Whale Heart
Deerhunter - Cryptograms
Handsome Furs - Plague Park
LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Panda Bear - Person Pitch
The Ponys - Turn the Lights Out
Pterodactyl - S/T
The Shins - Wincing the Night Away
The Subjects - With the Ease, Grace and Precision of Human Beings

GB: Besides Flameshovel bands, which Chicago acts are you most hyped on at the moment?

N: Tight Phantomz, 1900s, The Ponys, Pelican, Wilco, Pinebender, Sterling. I know I'm forgetting folks and if I did I'm sorry... Sorry!

GB: This one's for Jesse: How hard is it for you to balance working with Flameshovel, the Narrator, and Chin Up Chin Up? You must be one of the busiest individuals in Chicago indie rock.

N: I'm actually not sure myself. I will admit it here on Gapers Block: I keep really busy. Busier than most people I know, except maybe The Bear (the other half of Flameshovel). I think I can't function properly actually unless I'm really busy. I sit around and think too much and that always gets the best of me. I think collectively the two of us (The Bear and I) are the two most stressed out dudes in Chicago. I challenge all ye stressed out brothers and sisters of Chicago to a duel. The gauntlet has been dropped.

[mp3]: "SurfJew" - All That to the Wall

[mp3]: "Start Parking" - All That to the Wall

Check out The Narrator's record release party at The Hideout this Friday, May 11 at 10 pm. and get All That to the Wall Tuesday, May 15th at fine indie outlets throughout Chicago.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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