Over the last 15 years Merge Records has built up such a firm reputation that the label’s tendencies can overshadow its pupils’ efforts. Especially in the case of an unfamiliar identity like Tenement Halls, the Merge stamp might eclipse any mystery. Coincidence or not, Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells won’t offer much in the way of shock when considered next to the action in the other parts of Merge’s neighborhood. The earnestness espoused by such Merge stalwarts as Neutral Milk Hotel or ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead is similarly evident on this album, even if it takes a more demure approach à la Spoon. This is music for people who take themselves a little too seriously, but still get teary eyed when woken from a nap by the ice cream truck.
Tenement Halls is basically one man—Chris Lopez, formerly of Rock*A*Teens. Besides being a major inspiration for N*Sync (that’s my under-researched assumption), the Rock*A*Teens were Merge’s horribly named beloved back in the late ‘90s. Now, in the promotional literature for Tenement Halls, Merge does its best to impose a history on Chris Lopez’s musical endeavors. The truth may be that I’m horribly “uninitiated”, but I couldn’t care less about some “underrated” purveyor of revisionist indie rock. And even if I was a huge Rock*A*Teens fan from back in the day, how many Tenement Halls records would me and my seven fellow fan club members realistically buy? The thing is, indie rockists sorely want to participate in a continuum, allowing them some kind of standing in the history of popular music. Against the nature of their inherited DIY ethics and anti-commercialism stancing, they cry for acceptance and validation. Maybe when VH1 runs its “Indie Rock: When Then Was Now” miniseries it’ll give all these mildly successful bands a chance to tout their under-appreciated significance. So even if Dan Bejar of Destroyer thinks Rock*A*Teens were the bloody Herman’s Hermits of North Carolina, that won’t do much for someone who’s listening to Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells right now.
Right now this is a decent little record that’ll get you dancing in a rainy daze and all nostalgic about the weekend you spent with that girl you should’ve married. Reminiscent of the stomping clangers on Bright Eyes’ Lifted Or…, Lopez’s songwriting is deftly tuned into joy and melancholia’s precarious liaisons. Licking his wounds and rollicking simultaneously, Lopez deserves a lot of respect for carrying off this balancing act. With a seamless marriage of voice, lyrics, and the rickety rock band aesthetic, his songs are romantic without over-exaggerating the plaintive. This album would sit nicely next to the unguarded grownup sensibility of the Wrens’ Meadowlands. In that, it maintains a poignant tone without getting annoyingly pitiful. Not to imply that Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells doesn’t contain some whinier moments that might be better suited for a soundtrack to Kirk Van Houten’s balding existence.
Songs like “As Long As It Takes” and “Charlemagne” are hardly bearable, unless that is, you just got laid off at the cracker factory and the sobbing drowns out the pedestrian choruses and cardboard instrumentation. Then again, there are some modestly incendiary numbers included as well. “Plenty Is Never Enough” could make a guy wonder. Perhaps in Lopez’s reckless youth, with the support of a band, barns were burned more consistently. Rock*A*Teens back catalogue anybody? Too bad Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells isn’t intriguing enough on the whole to provoke exploration of Chris Lopez’s other work. It can grate at times and it’s way too ordinary an album for that to be a sign of substance or complexity. No matter what you think of Merge’s other artists, Tenement Halls doesn’t do it nearly as well.