Playing punk rock is a rite of passage if you can't learn other people's songs, or don't quite have a handle on your instruments. The Redwalls skipped that part of their development.
The Chicago four-piece (vocalist/guitarist Logan Baren, 22, vocalist/bassist Justin Baren, 20, vocalist/guitarist Andrew Langer, 20, and drummer Ben Greeno, 21) emerged from the garage already fully formed, bringing uncommon maturity and chops to their full-throttle combination of barrelhouse energy, melodic effervescence and classically soulful '60s influences. Produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith, The Vines) and scheduled for a June release, the band's still-untitled second album (and Capitol debut) is a spine-tinglingly fresh reminder that pop, R&B and rock'n'roll aren't always mutually exclusive genres.
Langer and the Baren brothers grew up on the same block in suburban Deerfield, IL, and have been a proper band since Justin was in junior high. Logan got his first guitar in the sixth grade, and thanks to the record collections of various neighbors, parents and friends-with-older-brothers, the trio found themselves soaking up classics like the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Otis Redding, in the same way blues musicians learn the standards.
"My first gig, they gave me a huge list of songs, over 70 covers, and said, 'learn these,'" remembers Greeno, who joined the band much later, after a prior sticksman opted for college over touring. "It felt like a paying your dues thing."
"When we were kids we were into Nirvana and all that, but it progressed to the point of taking things back to the roots," says Justin. "Not just the groups we liked, but the roots that they liked-Elvis, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie."
"We never fit in," says Logan. "But rock'n'roll's not a dated thing. There are other bands out there right now doing it as well, like Coldplay, the Strokes, or Brian Jonestown Massacre."
The Redwalls are very much a band, egalitarian in every way. Though Logan does the most, he, Justin and Andrew all take lead vocals and write songs (and all of them, Greeno included, also play a little piano). "It's not like one person's leading the way," says Langer. "It's more of a united front."
Harmonies are also a huge part of the band's sound. Some have wondered if there's a sort of biological magic that makes the two brothers sound especially perfect, but "me and Drew sound pretty good together too," says Justin. "It's more that we've had the patience to actually sit down and figure out how to make it sound good."
Originally known as The Pages--the name would turn out to be taken, by a '70s combo that went on to greater things as Mr. Mister-the boys started out playing around Chicago and Evanston in bars they weren't old enough to drink in. They also managed to piece together enough sessions at Columbia College's recording studio to come up with a first album, 2003's Universal Blues (Undertow). Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune praised it for its "blue-eyed soul sincerity, Buck Owens-by-way-of-Chuck Berry guitar fills, and deft sense of pop-song arrangement."
Gradually, the gigs got bigger: U.S. tours with Rooney and Chris Robinson, rapturously received appearances at Twangfest, SXSW and International Pop Overthrow. And finally, right around the time that Justin and Andrew graduated high school, the Redwalls signed to Capitol.
Recorded with Schnapf at Sunset Sound and Sound Factory, the new record adds some new dimensions - most notably, a horn section -- to the band's already impressively varied mix of songs. There's a laid-back Dixie grooves ("Thank You," "Build a Bridge"), Beatles-in-Hamburg stomps ("Rock & Roll," "It's Alright"), muscular pop anthems ("On My Way"), and woozy, pristine psychedelia ("Hung Up On The Way I'm Feeling").
Then there's the sharp hooks and equally sharp FCC-bashing ("in times like these, you better watch what you say/watch them take your fucking rights away") of "Falling Down," which Logan wrote after being chastised for profanity during a live radio appearance.
"We've got this war going on, and all these other problems in the world, and people are concerned about swearing on the radio?" he says. "It made me upset, so I put it in a song." Another track, "Glory of War," takes on the glamour of TV ads for the military. But the Redwalls aren't a protest band by any means.
"We're not preaching," Logan says. "Every once in a while you feel this obligation to acknowledge some of the fucked-up things that are going on. But we also sing about girls, and all that other stuff. What we really do is play rock'n'roll."
That, they do.