Sharp Darts: What Didn't Kill Them | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: What Didn't Kill Them

A drummer crisis pushed the Narrator toward their strongest album yet.

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The Narrator, Tight Phantomz

WHEN Fri 5/11, 10 PM

WHERE Hideout,1354 W. Wabansia

PRICE $8

INFO 773-227-4433 or 866-468-3401

Off the top of my head I can name a handful of good records by bands shaken up by the loss of a founding member. I know of a few by bands who've gotten a creative jolt by borrowing personnel from other groups, and of course there are dozens by bands who've refined an unfocused style into something powerfully direct. But despite all the issues of Mojo I've read, the new Narrator album, All That to the Wall, is the only one I can think of where all those things are true at once.

Some of the material on All That was incubated by the Narrator's original lineup, which got together in 2002: guitarists and vocalists Sam Axelrod and Jesse Woghin, bassist James Barron, and drummer Nate Heneghan. (Woghin is also co-owner of the local label Flameshovel, which has put out all the Narrator's records.) But after releasing the EP Youth City Fire in 2004 and the full-length Such Triumph in 2005--and touring "probably too much" to promote them, according to Woghin--the band started to develop stress fractures. Woghin and Heneghan were old friends, but Heneghan's relationship with the band was failing. "Things were just kinda going down, down, down," Axelrod says, "and we sort of couldn't play together anymore."

The remaining members of the Narrator are reluctant to talk about what finally went down, except to say they had a rough split with Heneghan this past August. Their search for his replacement was almost as difficult, even though they'd started putting out feelers months before the final breakup, when it became clear the trouble was serious. "We'd been waiting so long to find a drummer that we felt like it was never going to happen," Axelrod says. "We still wanted to keep going and finish the record. We had some friends who could play, so we were like, let's do it."

The band spent two weeks recording the album this past September and October, with help from drummers Dave Turncrantz of the local instrumental metal band Russian Circles and Dan Fetherston of the Oxford Collapse, a Brooklyn indie outfit that has frequently toured with the Narrator. Turncrantz's contribution was limited to some strong, solid drumming ("he just showed up and beat the shit out of them," says Axelrod), but Fetherston took it upon himself to act as a sort of editor for the group. Before All That their material had enough raw energy and spiky melodicism to keep it interesting, but even they admit that they tended to overcrowd their songs with complicated transitions. As Woghin puts it: "'Here's the bridge. Here's the bridge to the bridge. Here's the bridge to the bridge to the bridge.' It's like, what is going on?"

The band didn't always take Fetherston's advice--they passed on his suggestion to cut two whole minutes out of one tune, for instance--but he did help them pare down their fussy song structures. They also throttled back sonically from their previous discs: Between them Axelrod and Woghin had tended to use all 12 strings at once. But for All That the group jettisoned the dense, jagged guitar attack and volatile postpunk sound of Such Triumph--which have provoked frustratingly frequent comparisons to Q and Not U--and in doing so discovered a talent for elegant, straightforward melody.

"We were doing these fancy arrangements and trying to outsmart things," Axelrod says. "And then you listen to a Bob Dylan song, and it's just a verse and a chorus and it does it over and over. There's no tricks." (The band's apparently into Dylan lately: the title of the album is from something he's quoted as saying in a Steve Winwood biography.) All That makes the Narrator's newfound love of simplicity plain from the very first track: "Son of the Son of the Kiss of Death" opens with a distorted Casio drumbeat (a holdover from late last summer, when they had to write with a drum machine) and then breaks into a chiming, subdued melody that the band holds on to for the whole song, twisting and stretching it but never dropping it. The old Narrator would've used that part as a bridge to a bridge to a bridge, then discarded it after a couple seconds, but here they turn it into four minutes of gently driving pop bliss. You don't have to wait for the payoffs in their songs anymore--they've learned to find a sweet spot and stay there.

Credit for the relative spaciousness of the Narrator's new sound, at least on the album, goes in part to producer Mike Lust and his roomy but intimate recording style. The band also credits Lust with helping solidify the songs, some of which were unfinished when the sessions began. "Lust was good at sometimes indulging our desire to do stupid shit," Woghin says, "and then at other times being like, 'You gotta fucking stop.'"

"We like to hang out and Mike likes to hang out," says Barron, "so it was really cool. We were just hanging out, making a record." One day in the studio the band decided to take a crack at a cover of Dylan's "All the Tired Horses" they'd been messing around with. Night had given way to early morning by the time they set up in a hallway, drunk and exhausted, to record the vocal part together. The finished track opens a cappella, and then the instruments--bass, drums, acoustic guitars, banjo, organ--start edging in, repeating a simple figure over and over, and it all sounds just like it feels to try to stay on your feet when you've been drinking till four in the morning. Given that the band was going for straightforwardness and emotional power with this record, "All the Tired Horses" could be its centerpiece.

After finishing All That the Narrator recruited a permament drummer, local painter Kevin Vlack. For months now advance MP3s from the album have been getting lots of blog love, including from biggies like Stereogum, and on May 15 it finally comes out. The new lineup is playing a release party at the Hideout on Friday with Lust's band, Tight Phantomz; members of Mannequin Men DJ between sets.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Creps.

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