A couple months back I drove south to visit a friend from high school. She's one of those "friends from high school" that sort of make you cringe to admit that you now think of them as "friends from high school," and she now makes the GA coast her home, more or less. It was during one of those stretches of the Georgian summer where the temperatures are just shy of 8000 degrees and there's enough moisture per square foot of air to fill a large swimming pool. I had driven down on a Friday afternoon and, due to my inability to drive like a sane mammal, I arrived an hour or so early. I was left with time to kill, so I wandered over towards the marshes of the Altamaha headlands and passed the time. I suppose that anyone who grew up outside of the Southeast might have found the day oppressive, but I do come from 'round there, so I'm somewhat immune to the weather, such that it may be. I actually found the day to be shockingly wonderful. There I was, 300 miles from everything that might be called "my life" these days, casually disregarding the existence of time and space, sitting on an old dilapidated dock, hovering over the place where the river of my childhood turns meanderingly into the sea. It was, for a southern kid prone to over-thinking and with a soft spot for melodrama, a pristine existential moment.
Somewhere off in the distance a shrimp boat chugged in from its daily haul. The long, low moan of its horn floated across the flatness of the land, resonating and echoing with the melancholy and beauty of a moment's perfection. My only thought: "Chris Lopez would reverb that."
No, really. That's what I thought. I know! It's a pretty stupid thing to think right then and there, right? I mean, I should have been hacking out a Sartre-meets-Faulkner short story of some kind, turning over the dueling notions of "southern gentility" and "existential ennui" until my poor little head went numb. But no! Un-uh. Not a chance. "Lopez would reverb that." Clear as day, shooting through my subconscious like a chocolate bunny on ether.
I had spent the majority of the drive with a Rock*a*Teens tape in the deck, so perhaps that explains it. Cry backed by Golden Time, with selected tracks from Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall thrown in for completion's sake. And come to think of it, maybe that thought wasn't too terribly removed from the moment after all. I mean, if anyone can claim to do the Sartre-meets-Faulkner thing it's most certainly Chris Lopez. He might not admit it in public, but that's what he's doing. Every R*a*T*s song is, in essence, a miniature of No Exit wrapped up in an Absolom, Absolom candy coating. So perhaps the thought wasn't out of place.
Out of place or not, the thought turns out to be true, regardless, 'cause Lopez would reverb the angelic chorus given half the chance. He'd reverb a train wreck if he could get one pumped through that beat-up Epiphone amp he drags around with him. He'd reverb his own death moans if he thought he might be able to haunt the space long enough to hear it played back. Come to think of, maybe he has. I mean, have you heard his voice?
You don't believe me? Fine. Go out to your friendly neighborhood record store (or, if you frequent L5P, go out to the indier-than-thou record store of your choice) and pick up a copy of his latest offering, Sweet Bird of Youth. Go ahead, I'll wait.
See? Those are organs, for the record. Organs! Reverbed organs!
Okay, so I really like the Rock*a*Teens. I think they make great rock-n-roll songs. I think Lopez writes great stories about life in the not-quite-new South. Their music reminds me of home, and it rocks. As such, I am willing, perhaps more so than the average soul, to deal with the reverb. It is, after all, what gives the band it's haunting sound. There are lots of bands out there, and lots of them play solid rock-n-roll, and a few of them write great songs as well, but none of them haunt you like the Rock*a*Teens do. And that, my dear Evil Minions to be, is because of the reverb.
Only, those are organs! Reverbed organs!
Where to begin? How to adequately explain this thing? On the one hand, I heart this album. It fucking rocks. On the other, it's really quite easy to find things wrong with this album.
For example, the thing is 17 songs long. Lopez is a great songwriter, but he's not so brilliant that everything he touches turns to gold. A good copy editor would have been nice. Someone from the Merge Records staff could have popped in and said, "Hey guys, we think 16 songs are plenty. Maybe Our Future Was Then can be a b-side for something." And then, mayhap someone else could have popped in and said "You know, 15 is a nice, solid multiple of five, and Sun's Up might be good for a soundtrack somewhere." etc., et. al. But we can't really expect Mac and the gang to render that much direction, can we? These are the same people who released an EP of Brazilian pop songs, for god's sake. So Sweet Bird of Youth meanders a bit.
And then there's the "production." I use those quotes for a reason. The "production" values of this album are, um, well, mostly nonexistent. Aside from the reverb, of course. For some reason the band decided to record in what seems to be, from the sound of it, a deserted industrial park, perhaps with guitarist Justin Hughes standing waist deep in mud at the bottom of a very large barrel. For some reason they decided to record via an eight-track which very well may have been connected to the mics by two cans tied together with a string. Considering the sound of the second half of the album, that would make sense. Rob Gal did mix the drums, and that's good. But for the most part it's a good thing that "garagey" is an acceptable indie-rock sound.
And then there's the Thing of Which No One Will Speak. A little thing that at some point may or may not have been known as William Brandon, but for the foreseeable future will be referred to only in absentia and whispered conversations out of earshot of anyone vaguely connected to the Atlanta music scene. Brandon used to be the bassist. It didn't work out. I'm not nearly close enough to the scene to tell you why or who was to blame, but from the front row of last year's MergeFest it looked pretty fucking ugly. And that's sad. Brandon was a hell of a bassist. Nothing against Will Joiner, who is, by all accounts, a nice person, a cute boy and a pretty solid replacement, but he's not in the same league. And I think that while the band might not miss Brandon, the band's sound misses him.
The thing about Golden Time was that it took Lopez and Justin Hughes' echoing cacophony of guitar and wrapped it around Ballard Leseman's Zeppelin-esque kick drum and Brandon's somewhere-this-side-of-rockabilly hollow-body bass. Brandon and Leseman gave the band a backbone of rhythm the size of a brontosaur, a fact that served as perfect compliment to the general mayhem and chaos of the band's front end. Joiner works really hard to cover the licks left to him, but the new album's bass lines are not really that far removed from something I could play. And I'm a database programmer.
You may recall this phrase: "I heart this album. It fucking rocks." You may be having a difficult time with the juxtaposition of that phrase and the last four paragraphs. Let me explain.
If I Wanted To Be Famous (I'd Have Shot Someone) is the best rock-n-roll song released this year, give or take a Waco Brothers tune here or there. Car and Driver is Lopez at his melodramatic best, belting out phrases like "I hear you come from Lake St. Claire/ He once destroyed a boy who came from there" with a sincerity that borders the absurd. You'd kick the ass of a college freshman if they tried to pass this stuff off on open mike night, but you look at Chris and his duct-taped shoes and his duct-taped guitar strap and it works. Ma, Look What the City Did to Me might not destroy your world, but I moved to Metropolis a few months before Superman died. It's Destiny is about half the song that Let 'em Talk (Cry, 1997) is, which makes it about twice the song of anything you'll ever hear on the radio.
In the end it's an exercise in futility to review this album, I guess. In the end, you either get this band, or you don't. If you do, you'll buy this album and listen to it. If you don't you, probably have no idea who the hell Chris Lopez is. But sometimes futility is a magnificent catharsis. Sometimes you see a girl in the Kentucky snow, her lips blue from the cold, and your world collapses. Sometimes you sit on a dock in the heat and humidity and a seagull flies by.
The best Rock*a*Teens songs are small vignettes of the every day South, snapshots of a world that you may or may not know. Sweet Bird of Youth shows hints of a short story master trying too hard to be a novelist, hints of a band that writes great songs trying to make a statement album. It drags along a few unnecessary chapters just for the filler, but if you skim through the pulp you'll find nuggets like I Hope You Never See Me Like This. And that makes it all worth the time. In the end it's a beautiful thing. A big, chaotic reverbed mess, but beautiful in it's own vagabond chicness.
And yeah, those are organs. Reverbed organs. Ain't it great?