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In the 1950 film classic All About Eve, a critic pays homage to Bette Davis's aging Broadway star. "You're maudlin and full of self-pity," he fawns. "You're magnificent!"
The same can be said of Atlanta's Rock*A*Teens, who over the past four years have squeezed out three long-players and one EP riddled with reckless paeans to melancholy. Their latest, Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall, is a blue-chip weeper: The overblown, vintage ballads of singer/guitarist Chris Lopez, guitarist Justin Hughes and bassist William Brandon Smith push through decks of static like some phantom AM station transmitting exclusively for the desperate. Instead of driving off a cliff, the lonely motorist hearing it is apt to bang his head on the steering wheel and bawl.
Since their debut, the Rock*A* Teens have remained true to their first loves: raw emotion and reverb. "For some reason, we had this wall of sound in mind--sound that's there that we're not actually doing," Lopez says. "We talked about things being very orchestral and huge, like trying to play a style of music that's not guitar-oriented--almost pre-rock-and-roll music."
Considering that the original Rock*A*Teens lineup consisted of three guitarists (Lopez, Hughes and former Jody Grind leader Kelly Hogan) and drummer Chris Verene (a photographer and occasional musical contributor whose snap of his Grandpa Bill's Vitalis-soaked pillow adorns Baby's cover), the players' goals were as ambitious as making a flourless cake entirely out of flour. But that didn't stop them. "Nobody owned a bass, and certainly none of us have any money, so we couldn't buy one," Lopez maintains. "It started off innocently enough. We never thought, 'Well we can't be a band if none of us plays the bass.' People always asked us about it--like, 'Three guitars? What are you, like the Allman Brothers or something?' But we were more concerned with people who play with us aesthetically or tastewise rather than skillwise, so we could all communicate in the same language." In fact, Hogan (who left to pursue a solo career and work for Bloodshot, an insurgent country label in Chicago) exhibited quite a primitive ax-picking technique during her days with the quartet. "She wasn't really playing the guitar," Lopez concedes. "If you ever saw us play, she had tape on the other strings so they wouldn't ring. Basically, she would just play one string on the guitar."
How did the early Teens manage to achieve such a grandiose swell while avoiding what Lopez terms "lunkheaded rock music"? By making the most innovative use possible of the elements at their disposal. Lopez notes, "I have this amplifier that I use--and I don't know if there's an actual problem with it or what--but it makes this really god-awful intense reverb. So we basically built the band around an amplifier."
The faulty amp was not the only turnstile on the path to mysterious auditory textures, however. "We try to play the guitars so that it doesn't sound like a guitar playing," Lopez explains. "You turn it into a swirling sound like a string section or an organ. Justin has all kinds of cockamamy pedals and stuff, and he makes his guitar sound like outer space, which is great." On early albums, Lopez supplemented Hughes's work by adding simple, unobtrusive bass lines in the studio or employing "one of those big Hammond organs with the speaker that spins around." But the organ flourishes are absent on Baby. Instead, Smith, who apparently can afford to own a bass, contributes trundling fuzz that's compatibly spooky and cavernous, infusing the material with new depth. "Brandon plays his bass through his crappy amplifier and turns on the reverb," Lopez notes approvingly. "He plays the bass in a positive way; it's not very macho or heavy."
Vocally, Lopez wails with all the painful sincerity of a drunken karaoke singer even when the songs wax Cramps-campy. As for the lyrics, which he writes, Lopez says they're often spurred by private movies that play in his head. "I think about it and I can see it. Like that song 'I Could Have Just Died' is this story that makes me laugh. It's about a guy who's going to a wedding. He goes in the house, and he's all drunk, and he falls through the glass table, and the best man gets mad at him, and so they start fighting. Then they fall into the wedding cake, and he grabs the bride and groom off the cake and snaps them apart."
Lopez's sense of humor isn't obvious to everyone; recently, he was rankled by a critic whose reviews of Baby accused the bandmembers of being a bunch of brooding party poopers. "He wrote, 'It's not a bad record, and the Rock*A*Teens are one of the few bands that seem to be blazing their own trail, but it's just so depressing that it's not any fun. They used to be fun. I guess because Kelly's gone, they're not fun anymore,'" Lopez paraphrases. But he insists that comic moments can be found by anyone willing to look for them--just as they are with other artists unfairly labeled as one-dimensional. "Take Morrissey," he remarks. "People were always like, 'Oh, Mr. Mopey-Mopey.' But if you listen to those songs, they were hilarious and catty."