[14 May 2007]
To be a successful indie rock band these days is to embrace the same kind of media planning usually attributed to major label pop stars. In the early 1990s, who would’ve thought the genre would have evolved to where it is today with toll-free phone numbers, pirate YouTube videos, secret shows, and mysterious paper propaganda all being used in conjunction with the usual pre-album, Internet buzzing, media blitz? Hell, who would’ve thought a band like the Arcade Fire would appear on the cover of Blender? Regardless, when a shaggy dog band like the Narrator comes along with nothing more than the usual promo CD begging not to be sold at the local used record store and a promo sheet, you root for them just a little more.
When the Narrator dropped Such Triumph in 2005, it was as the bandmembers themselves describe it, “a chart-touching, copper-selling record”. That is to say, it didn’t turn too many heads. And that’s a shame, because their rootsy, grimy, Pavement-inspired indie rock had more than its share of charm. Fast forward two years and the Narrator have retained their charisma. While most bands attempt to step up their game with their second album—by adding strings, brass, or choirs—the Narrator, well, they’ve added nothing. All That to the Wall is endearing because of its lack of ambition. There are no overachievers here, just some dudes, some tunes, and probably a few cases of beer.
While All That to the Wall retains the basic architecture of their debut, the recording and mixing by the awesomely named Mike Lust slightly smooths out some of the band’s grittier elements without sacrificing their shambling, almost accidental songwriting aesthetic. Indeed, right from the disc’s lead track, “Son of the Son of the Kiss of Death”, guitarists Sam Axelrod and Jesse Woghin don’t bounce off each other so much as have random encounters that seem to coalesce into a number of oddly compelling moments and swirls of noise, yet with enough hooks to keep the party going. But the Narrator aren’t particularly concerned at making friends. “SurfJew” is one of the few times when a band’s press material is actually right on the money. Describing the track as “the hit”, they also apologetically admit they “could never come up with a better title”. The song is fantastic, the sort of track to play with the windows down on a summer night, cruising around town in a beat up Chevette trying to find a bar that’s still open. And rest of the disc is filled with that good times vibe.
Even if the some of the songs on the latter half of the disc aren’t so memorable, the pure joy of just being in a band is palpable. But like any band worth their salt, the Narrator know how to end a disc, in this case with a one-two punch of hair-raising anthems. “A Decade in Kentucky” is the disc’s opus, clocking in five-and-a-half minutes, and is split Grindhouse style into two rough halves. The first half is sonic dirge, punctuated by guitar squeals and thundering drums until the second half, a Built To Spill-esque pop number about something to do with “kids getting restless / While saving up for a rainy day” sprints to home base. Closer “Chocolate Windchimes” is nostalgia distilled and chilled into a misty salute to “hanging out” among things and finds an emotional edge unseen in the Narrator’s previous songs.
The Narrator are like the friend who borrows stuff and never returns it, or who comes to dinner and doesn’t bring anything or offers to help cleaning up. But you forgive them because they tell great stories, are good company, or have a genuine heart. All That to the Wall is scrappy yet loveable, and deserves a place at the table.