It didn’t take me too long to realize that I was in a bit over my head.
Before I agreed to review Merge’s re-release of the Rock*A*Teens final album, Sweet Bird of Youth, my mental rolodex card for the band was as follows:
1. Kelly Hogan played on their records. (Just the early ones?)
2. They’re definitely from the south, 90% sure it’s Georgia.
3. Never really took off.
4. Pretty sure they aren’t the “Woo-Hoo” band.
It wasn’t a whole lot to go on, but I’d written more on bands about which I knew less. However, upon listening to the music and delving into the Rock*A*Teens’ story, it didn’t take me much time to realize that I was intruding upon little-trod but nonetheless sacred ground. This is a band with a one paragraph Wikipedia entry that reads like it was written by the drummer’s best friend. In fact, every online scrap I could find (which were few and far between) was written with that kind of wide-eyed, changed-world, lost-causes-are-the-only-ones-worth-fighting-for zeal that should make any child of modern online overexposure sit up and take notice.
So I guess the story starts in 1994. After the tragic loss of her Jody Grind bandmates in a car crash, Kelly Hogan joined with Chris Lopez, Justin Davis Hughes and Chris Verene in a new project called the Rock*A*Teens. They played in a run-down corner of Atlanta called Cabbagetown (and seriously, can you think of a more fittingly Dickensian origin spot for a band like this?). After starting with two albums on Daemon Records, they eventually moved to Merge for a couple more before releasing Sweet Bird of Youth in October 2000. After a series of personnel changes their lineup for the final record was Lopez, Hughes, William Joiner and Ballard Leesmann. Like their previous releases, it met with a decidedly muted response and, after a final EP, by 2003 the band was no more.
Backstory aside, it was the music that struck me first and hit the hardest. Sweet Bird of Youth is a record that rolls over you like sweet, prickly tsunami. Recorded originally by Chris Lopez on cheap keyboard and guitar, the songs were brought to the rest of the band in demo form. Each member (and a few select guests) recorded their parts on top of this, resulting in a swelling, Spector-worthy spectacle in nearly every song. Lopez howls in desperation, drums crash painfully and reverb sizzles from every guitar and organ note it possibly can. The result is a strange mixture of ’60s wall-of-sound pop, Replacements-style drunken bombast, bad-trip psychedelic atmospherics and more than a pinch of confused, Faulknerian rage.
The record grabs you with the one-two punch of “Car and Driver” and “If I Wanted to Be Famous (I’d Have Shot Someone)” which wrest your attention from whatever suddenly-secondary thoughts you might be having and focus you on the issue at hand. The former has the feel of a boozy, carnivalesque romp later visited on “If You Only Knew”, while the latter has a the feelings of a Mekons-like musical search and destroy mission, permanently dynamiting itself a place in the back of your skull.
As befits a man in his 30s who’d spent the better part of a decade in dead-end bars and clubs, Lopez delivers his lyrics about fear, loss, desperation and failure in a voice that splits the difference between a sneer, a bellow and a mewl. His songs have titles like “Please Don’t Go Downtown Tonight”, “I Hope You’ll Never See Me Like This” and “Ma, Look What the City Did to Me”. They paint the picture of a man at the end of any number of ropes, trying to hold onto anything meaningful he can find, most often a woman. He does counter this sad-sack routine with preciously guarded slivers of optimism like “Make It New Again”, which lightens up the mood at least enough to stifle full-on depression (at least until everyone sobers up).
Even though it’s too of a piece to be tagged with that near-obligatory double LP descriptor, “sprawling”, the Rock*A*Teens know just when to switch of the formula on Sweet Bird of Youth to keep it from getting too godawful draggy (OK, maybe they could have saved a COUPLE of songs for b-sides). The sticky, sing-songy melody of “Lee Knows Every Raindrop”, for example, shows the band’s poppy side while the fuzzy blast of “Our Future Was Then” cuts through the dramatics to deliver some kick to the record’s second half. Elsewhere, Lopez’s sweet duet with Shannon Wright on “It’s Destiny” gives us the closest thing we’ll get to a ballad (complete with what sounds like marimbas) and succeeds brilliantly in paring down the instrumentation while honing in on the record’s fundamental romantic despair.
The release comes with a bonus disc/download. It’s the Rock*A*Teens’ final show (until now), recorded at the Caledonia Lounge on the day before New Year’s Eve 2002 (it was also the band’s second-to-last show). As seems fitting for the band, it sounds like a soundboard recording of about C+/B- quality. There doesn’t seem to be a huge audience to hear the group power through a broad swath of their five-album catalog. A lot of the shimmering brilliance, the rafters-rousing hopelessness that made that Sweet Bird sing seems to be conspicuously absent here. The live disc mostly serves to show just how underappreciated they were at the time.
Chris Lopez has intimated in interviews that the band is still hoping to play on this reunion tour. I desperately hope that they do. They need to be playing festivals and double-headlining bills for people who’ve never heard them before because these are the kinds of songs that reach out and touch you. Merge has done us all a favor by giving another generation the chance to discover the Rock*A*Teens, hopefully more people will do themselves themselves the favor of listening the second time around.