In that they were arguably the best American rock ‘n roll band of the 90s, it is safe to say that the Rock*A*Teens were also the most underrated American rock ‘n roll band of the 90s. Okay, good, that's out of the way—more would just lead to despair and tragedy. Which I guess would be apt, seeing as "despair" and "tragedy" are two of the main cornerstones in the work of Chris Lopez (for the uninitiated, Chris Lopez is the singer-songwriter-chief-visionary behind the now-defunct Rock*A*Teens, and the new Tenement Halls). But the other key ingredient, and this is key, is revelry in the face of being f***ed over by the world, and the heroic inebriation (disequilibrium of any kind?) with which one refuses or faces the facts. The facts being that it'll soon be dark. The facts being that it'll end in tears. That being said, this new Tenement Halls strays some from the beaten Rock*A*Teens path (this is understandable, the Rock*A*Teens having been a completely different band, and all). For starters, there's something more relaxed, ambling, dare I say sunny (remember the context here!) or pastoral going on. Also, I don't think this one was recorded in that abandoned Air Force hangar. And the writhing chimera of lost-in-the-fog guitars doing eight slightly different versions of a couple really pretty things (this and the hangar being mother and father to the RATs sound)—that ain't there either. A lot of the electrics have turned into organs, pianos, and some other acoustic things, and there's a new stripped down clarity to it all. This might account for this Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells record maybe being the most melodically immediate collection of Lopez songs to date. Maybe some will miss the murk overdose, since that was pretty cool, too. But the melodies are all still all here in that blushing, Brill-building, should-a-been-a-hit tradition from which Lopez never pilfers, always adds to. Remember that.
When the time comes when much will be said and written about the songs of Chris Lopez (I don't know when this will be, but of its
eventuality I am sure), much will be said of his lyrics. I won't get into it here, cause this is a f***ing one-sheet and it probably won't
work, but let's just say I think they are the most concrete and compelling vision of romance—doomed and otherwise (carnal, courtly,
narcotic, platonic... uh, did I say doomed?)—set to American music in a long, long time. By "a long, long time," I mean decades.
Could be a southern thing—a “strong, literary tradition” which doesn't really seem to exist elsewhere in the States. And some
themes have morphed a little with this new Tenement Halls. There is reclusiveness, a denial of the world that comes with any serious
take on redemption. But it seems kind of happy in its own weird way, not as tortured as you would think. There is Lopez clean and
sober, Lopez working on his house, Lopez in love. But things blur, belied by perversion and failure (‘cause they must), in various
stages: Lopez sneaking himself a shandy, peaking through the curtains; Lopez talking to his cats (27 of them); Lopez in the early
stages of dementia. Ahem ... of course, I don't mean Chris Lopez but the voices and characters that haunt the songs of Tenement
Halls. And it is haunt, ‘cause that's what ghosts do. Maybe listen to "When the Swifts Come Home" for a more accurate example of
all this. Actually, just listen to the whole record repeatedly, and it will make sense. Not that it needs to.