The Kids Are Alright
Let's just get this out of the way right now -- the Redwalls are derivative, and what's more, the bands they derive from are not hiply obscure. Hell, neither are the songs. So don't expect to look like an authority when you play "spot the influence" with the tunes on De Nova, their major-label debut.
To wit, you won't score any hipster points by noticing that album opener "Robinson Crusoe" kicks off with a guitar riff inspired (to put it mildly) by T. Rex's "Bang a Gong." Nor will you seem like a rock genius when you point out that "Thank You" feels a hell of a lot like David Bowie's "Young Americans," or that "Build a Bridge" rips off the Faces, or that "Hung Up on a Feeling" is a dead ringer for the leitmotif on side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road, or that "Rock & Roll" echoes the 1964-era version of the same band, or that the epic, squalling guitar/plinging piano outro at the end of "Back Together" mimics Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?"
And then there's the acoustic anti-war lament "Glory of War," in which you can debate yourself silly trying to decide whether the singer is channeling Bob Dylan directly or channeling him secondhand through a Robyn Hitchcock filter. (Either way, the singer ends up sounding like Hitchcock.)
If that sort of thing bothers you, if you demand that a band sound "original," don't bother with the Redwalls. Go see Mr. Bungle or Godspeed You Black Emperor! or something. On the other hand, if you just like good, old-fashioned, 1971-vintage rock 'n' roll, strong songs, excellent harmonies, and sing-along choruses, then by all means come down and meet one of your new favorite bands.
Put Pitchforkmedia.com in the hater category. Citing what he saw as the band's lack of originality both musically and lyrically, a reviewer at the influential hipster Web site gave the band a 3.6 out of 10, one of the lowest scores of the year on the site. (I think he was just upset that the band didn't rip off hip old bands like Wire and XTC like everybody else.) Though bassist/singer Justin Baren -- reached while his band was in New York for a two-night stand at that city's Mercury Lounge -- hadn't read that review, he's perused others of its ilk. "I always said I wanted the right people to hate us," he says. "We got our wish."
Asked about what kind of people he means by the "right" kind, he says "trendy bullshit assholes who think they're cool. Like one of the music snob guys. We just write really good rock 'n' roll music, you know, or at least we try to."
Among those who think the Redwalls write really good music are Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, who handpicked the Redwalls to open shows for them on their most recent U.K. tour. "They're really, really good guys," Baren says of the oft-maligned Gallagher brothers. "Really nice. You hear all that shit in the press about how they're mean, how they're cocks, but they're really not. They watched our show every night -- they were just really cool, man."
Other than the obvious shared musical affinities, the Redwalls have something else in common with Oasis: brothers in the band. Justin Baren's hermano Logan is the principal lead singer and plays guitar. (Singer-guitarist Andrew Langer and drummer Ben Greeno round out the lineup.) Langer and the Barens started playing together as a cover band called the Pages in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield about four years ago, when each member was still in high school. (The original drummer dropped out of the band to attend college -- it's a safe bet he's kicking himself now as he pores over his sociology textbook.)
The band's first few shows were post-headlining gigs -- they would ask a club if they could come in and play classic rock and soul covers after the big guns had gone quiet. These shows, which usually began around 1 a.m., were received well enough to win them sufficient success to force a name change -- "the Pages" handle was already taken by the band that achieved infamy as Mr. Mister.
Now, about that new name. Don't get it twisted -- the band is not named in honor of the Brian Jacques kids' books. Baren gets a little upset when asked about it. "People keep asking that and I didn't even know about that fuckin' book," Baren says of the first installment in the Redwall series. "Is it about a fuckin' mouse? Actually, our name comes from a Bob Dylan song called 'The Walls of Red Wing.' We couldn't be the Redwings" -- as all you NHL fans know, Detroit has a hockey team by that name -- "so we chose the Redwalls."
And then the band cobbled together enough original material, time and money to go into a local college's studio and record their debut album, Universal Blues (which, by the way, also includes a Beatles-esque cover of ZZ Top's "Balinese"). And to hear Baren tell it, right after that a deal with Capitol Records simply fell out of the sky. "I don't really know how that all went down," he says. "We were making our first record, and before it was even done, people [in the music business] were starting to get it from friends of ours. It started getting passed around, and before we knew it, we were signed to Capitol."
The label teamed them up with producer Rob Schnapf, whose previous credits include Beck, the Vines, and the late Beatles fanatic Elliott Smith, and who came armed with retro flourishes by the crate -- George Martin-esque string flourishes, Bowie's Thin White Duke-era saxophones, Hammond organs, and stuff like that. The band's luck didn't end there: Once the album was in the can and they started touring, the big gigs fell into place as easily as the Capitol deal. First Keane and then Oasis tabbed the band as an opener, and last month, in their hometown, in front of tens of thousands, the group had the honor of kicking off the shenanigans at the revitalized Lollapalooza.
And now -- with the oldest guy in the band all of 22 -- they're on their first headlining tour. I asked Baren if he was hitting the wall, if he was tired of interviews and jumping through all the label's hoops. "It's a lot more work than any of us thought it was gonna be," he admits. "We all thought it was just gonna be about having fun, getting laid and playing music, and it isn't, but we're young and now's the time to do it. We're getting in our rhythm, so it's all good."
Indeed it is, so long as you're not a trendy bullshit asshole who thinks you're cool.
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