Jason Narducy – lead vocals, guitar, songwriting
Alison Chesley – cello
Lennie Deitsch – bass, backing vocals
Randy Morris – drums, backing vocals
On White Out, the follow-up to their acclaimed 1997 Epic/550 debut Chronicles, the Chicago quartet Verbow delivers an adventurous yet accessible melding of aggressive rock energy, subtle melodic craftsmanship and unflinching lyrical insight.
Punk-weaned singer/guitarist Jason Narducy’s vivid songwriting and impassioned vocals are matched by the inventive textures of classically-trained cellist Alison Chesley, whose unconventional playing encompasses a broad range of guitar-like leads, solos and countermelodies, stretching the boundaries of the instrument’s traditional sonic range while expanding the emotional pallette of Narducy’s hook-filled compositions.
Building on Chronicles’ salient qualities while exploring compelling new directions, the 12-song White Outproduced by Chicago indie-rock legend Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Sunny Day Real Estate, Smashing Pumpkins) is a seamless blend of immediacy and introspection, with songs like “New History,” “Dying Sun,” “Sweet Felicity,” “Ambulance,” “Garden” and “Closer to Free” embodying the bundle of complementary contradictions that comprise Verbow’s sound and vision. The album’s pensive closing track, “Crest of Mary,” is actually the band’s original first-take demo, clearly demonstrating Verbow’s progression as an organic performing unit.
Where Chronicles captured a band still discovering its strengths and working to carve out a distinctive sound, White Out finds Verbow to be fully in touch with its own abilities and eager to stake out new musical and lyrical territory. “Chronicles was made quickly, with all the resources we had at the time,” Narducy notes, adding, “White Out was the first time we’ve had the budget to be able to try different sounds and different approaches.”
Indeed, the new album finds Verbow achieving new levels of both complexity and simplicity.
“I didn’t have much personal crisis going on when I wrote the songs on Chronicles, so I tended to go outside of myself and tried to speak in other characters’ voices,” Narducy explains. “Whereas I was experiencing a lot of personal turmoil when I was writing the songs on White Out, so I tended to write about myself.”
“If there’s a theme in the lyrics of these songs, it’s alienation. But in a strange way, when I started playing the record for people, they would say ‘This is a really up record.’ I guess that being as down as I was, the only way to go was up, and the result, ironically, is a pretty positive record.”
Narducy’s new compositions are complemented by ambitious arrangements that are both simpler and more adventurous than the prior album’s, with Chesley making decidedly inventive use of the cello’s multifaceted sonic potential.
“It’s a very human instrument,” Narducy says, “and when it’s played by someone like Alison it just takes it to another realm. I think I’ve improved at writing music that gives her a better platform.”
“There’s also a lot more space in the arrangements, because touring with Chronicles made me realize that it’s healthy to step back and just give the song what it needs. When we first played the record for our A&R guy, his reaction was ‘Wow, I’ve never heard your music breathe like this.'”
The seeds of Verbow’s unique sound were planted in 1993, when Narducywho began his musical career at the age of ten in the punk combo Verbotenmet Chesley, who at the time was working on her masters degree in cello performance at Northwestern University. After meeting at the Evanston, Illinois coffeehouse where Jason worked as a dishwasher, the singer/guitarist invited the cellist to sit in for a few songs on one of his acoustic solo gigs.
Despite their divergent musical backgrounds, the two musicians’ creative chemistry sparked immediately. Billed as Jason & Alison, the duo quickly became a locally popular act, with a loud, forceful sound that belied their acoustic instrumentation. That evolving sonic approach, and Narducy’s potently personal songwriting, were showcased on the Jason & Alison album Woodshed, released in 1994 by Chicago’s independent Whitehouse label, and praised by such music-industry journals as Billboard and CMJ.
By 1997, Jason & Alison had added a rhythm section and evolved into the four-piece Verbow. By that point, the band had earned the admiration of one of its heroes, Bob Mould, who as leader of Husker Du and Sugar helped pioneer what is now known as alternative rock. Mould, who had taken Jason & Alison on the road as his opening act, was such a fan that he took the still-unsigned Verbow under his wing, fronting the band studio time to record Chronicles, on which Mould served as producer and spiritual mentor to the band.
In contrast to the relatively spartan, low-budget circumstances under which Chronicles was made, White Out was recorded in a more relaxed, less pressurized atmosphere. The band members and producer Wood retreated to a rented house on Lake Michigan in Indiana, in the middle of a blizzard that left 21 inches of snow on the ground.
“It was very communal and organic, and I’d like to think that feeling translates into the music,” Jason Narducy states. “We had all the recording gear set up in the living room, with mikes and cords leading into different bedrooms. People would be in the kitchen making pastas and salads and opening bottles of wine while someone else was tracking.”
Beside the fact that it was recorded in a blizzard, “the record’s called White Out, is because a lot of the songs are about change and starting over,” Narducy concludes. “I really felt like we needed to do what felt natural and what we were good at, rather than worrying about what’s trendy or calculating what we thought an audience will like.”
“My attitude is that if it’s truthful and honest, then it will speak to people and people will respondand that’s what we tried to achieve.”