“Though the song is the same, doesn’t matter who plays, it’s alright”, sing the Redwalls in the opening minute of their debut album Universal Blues. The suburban Chicago quartet (they hail from nearby Deerfield) make no bones about it, they’re total throwbacks, a bunch of 18-21 year-olds having some fun reliving the British rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the mid-Sixties, filtering it all through their own ambitious imaginations, and delivering some scorching, gritty, original rock music of their own. The whole garage rock revival of the past few years has become a bit bloated, the pretenders greatly outnumbering the contenders; the energy is there, no question about it, but what’s shamefully absent from many of these bands is a true, innate sense of what makes a good pop song. More often than not, it’s all riffs, and no hooks. The White Stripes and the Strokes, America’s great rock ‘n’ roll hopes, have managed to transcend the garage label on their sophomore albums (in the Strokes’ case, in spectacular fashion), and just by listening to the Redwalls’ new CD, you get the feeling that these kids are not far behind.
To listen to Universal Blues is to be instantly transported to the days of the early Beatles. No, not those Cavern Club gigs with all the screaming girls, but those raucous, loud, speed-fueled sets in the dingy clubs on Hamburg, Germany’s seedy Reeperbahn, where the boys honed their sound, throwing anything and everything at the wall, just to see what stuck. Like those transplanted Liverpudlians, the Redwalls are very young, loaded with raw talent, and on this record, brimming with confidence. You get a simple Chuck Berry lick in one song, some dingy Stones riffs in another, some raw Kinks style rock in the next, then a touch of country. Above all else, though, you get a whole lotta Beatles. These guys have Beatles on the brain all the time, but unlike the whole Rubber Soul/Revolver sound that has been done to death in recent years (uh, Oasis, you can stop now), the Redwalls backtrack even further, exploring the sound of the Beatles in their infancy, from around 1963. And whaddya know, they pull it off brilliantly.
Fronted by brothers Justin and Logan Baren, who share lead vocal duties on the album, the Redwalls (formerly named the Pages) purportedly began as a Beatles cover band before moving on to writing their own material, and you hear that influence immediately. “Colorful Revolution” swipes Paul McCartney’s distinctive bassline from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, the charming rocker “Speed Racer” is incredibly similar to the Beatles’ 1965 cover of Larry Williams’s “Bad Boy”, while Logan Baren’s vocals bear a stunning similarity to a young John Lennon, a soulful, cracked howl that will have the girls swooning in no time. Need a better comparison? Listen to Lennon’s anguished bridge in “This Boy”, then listen to Logan on “You Will Never Know”. The similarity is amazing.
Fortunately, the band doesn’t rely on the Beatles rip-offs exclusively, as the album shows more than enough musical depth to avoid sounding too gimmicky. “You Will Never Know” is a five-minute blues jam that resembles the work of the early Rolling Stones, the Hammond organ-laced “It’s Alright” is a ferocious, straight-up, garage rock tune, while the ballads “That’s the Way the Story Goes” and “Home” have more of a country tinge. “What a Shame” is a blistering, blues rock tune, “I Just Want to Be the One” is a great little imitation of Bob Dylan circa 1965 (right down to Logan’s nasal wail), and “Balinese”, an original which so closely resembles ZZ Top’s song of the same name that they had to call it a cover just to avoid any legal hassles, boasts a cool Crazy Horse riff that sounds like it came straight from Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.
Universal Blues was recorded both very quickly (one week) and extremely cheaply (a couple grand), yet this humble debut easily outshines most of the other rock debuts from this past year, a fact not lost on Capitol Records, who recently signed the band to a major deal (a Capitol release is currently slated for Spring 2004). This music is energetic, fun, and catchy as hell, and one can’t help but think that some big things are in store for this fine young band in the near future.