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."
The tales he tells aren't altogether fictional, Lopez allows: "I'm sure there's a kernel of truth in parts of them, but it's songwriting. It's not college-journal freak-out poetry." For example, the incident that inspired "N.Y. by Helicopter," a gorgeous ode from the new disc that finds Lopez chasing an elusive love via chopper, hovercraft and a silver jet-pack, was entirely heartbreak-free. "We were staying as downtown as you can get in New York, where I'd never been before--down by where you get the Staten Island ferry. I guess it's like Fisherman's Wharf or something, kind of touristy; they had some schooners docked there that you can tour," he remembers. "Me and Brandon got up really early. It was dark and you didn't know if it was day or night. Everybody kept sleeping, but we went walking around, and we stopped into Wendy's because Brandon had to pee. And I was standing there, looking at this rack of brochures of fun things to do when you're in Manhattan, and one said 'New York By Helicopter.' For $100, they fly you around the skyscrapers for twelve minutes. I thought that was funny. But, of course, the theme of the song was completely different."
The development of the music on "N.Y. by Helicopter" was equally organic. "I played the song on the guitar and recorded it on a push-button cassette recorder, and then gave the tape to Justin," Lopez says. "He went home and recorded two guitar parts--one slowed down and one sped up, so it sounds like choirs. Then he went to his mom's house and played the piano and added that." This recording was then brought into the studio, where it was twinned with a synthesized string section that was funneled through the infamous defective amplifier. Smith jimmied with the amp's pitch knob during the transferring process in order to make the entire squall throb like a warped record.
On Baby and its immediate predecessor, engineer David Barbe, of Sugar fame, ably mixed such experimentation, but in the future, Lopez remarks, "we're of the mind that we're going to try to do as much of it ourselves as we can. I'm a strong proponent of more time. I think you can make better records if you have more time, so it's not just a regular rock thing where you practice the songs a billion times and then go to a studio and play them. Not to sound like a goofball, but you can be more creative, and it's more exciting, when it's not as regimented--like 'Here we go! March in! Plug in! Perform song!'"
At the same time, Lopez argues that the tunes themselves are what glue the Rock*A*Teens' oeuvre together, not their search for new aural flavors. "We're probably selling ourselves short saying that its all about that kind of reverb," Lopez avers. "The number-one thing is the songs. We're really into songwriting. I'm quite obsessed with it as an art form."
Indeed, Lopez's work displays a great deal of craftsmanship. Unlike some one-trick ponies on the indie scene, he always places a solid melodic bedrock beneath the bombast. "When I write songs, I write them on an acoustic guitar, sitting around watching TV and stuff, so they actually exist," he professes. "And then we just put them through the machine and see what they come out as. But I definitely think the songs can stand on their own."
Nonetheless, don't expect to find minimalism on the Rock*A*Teens' menu anytime soon. After all, the ragged symphonic storms that issue from their dilapidated equipment mirror the sensibilities of Lopez's battered protagonists, resulting in sonic overkill that's excruciatingly lovely. "I'm not ashamed to say I wouldn't mind hearing some beautiful music now and again, and I think sometimes we can make pretty songs," Lopez offers coyly. "Although some people would beg to differ."
The Rock*A*Teens, with Register and the Speedholes. 9 p.m. Friday, August 14, 15th St. Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.
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