I often make the outrageous drunken claim that the Rock*A*Teens were the best rock and roll band of the 1990s. It’s sort of ridiculous to say, but as I write this sentence stone sober and drinking a glass of juice, I still kind of believe it. I keep waiting to not believe it, as I very frequently don’t believe all kinds of outrageous claims that I make, but I just cross-referenced with all the other 1990s rock and roll bands in my iTunes (we’re talking bands here, not singer-songwriters – and rock, not hip-hop which I think was way more important than rock in the 90s anyway) and I’m pretty much ready to double down; this disastrously scrappy Atlanta band with their not-very-good-sounding recordings and their name half-swiped from a 50’s rockabilly outfit were…okay, let’s not say the “best,” because I don’t really believe there’s any objective truth when it comes to evaluating music – let’s say they were my favorite. They had more great records than Nirvana (although no defining masterpiece), were (a tiny bit) smarter and had more at stake than Pavement, were more consistent than Guided By Voices, and had better all-around songs than Galaxie 500. So, though I love all those other bands, I’m going with them.
The thing is, they’re a band that it’s kind of hard to turn people on to or to fully explain the appeal of. Part of this is that their albums are recorded in a way that make it hard to tell how brilliant of a songwriter and heroic of a singer their frontman Chris Lopez was. Lopez wanted records that evoked the melodramatic garagey slop of 50s teen rock and roll and then went a little further, and that’s what he got, and it’s cool, but the problem is that it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. You just hear this woofy feedback, this reverb splattering all the sounds into abstraction (apparently Lopez did all the singing on one of their records from across a gym), this kind of uncontrolled skronkiness that disguises the craft. Like the Replacements, the Rock*A*Teens deflected their own tendency towards intelligence and thoughtfulness by playing with a drunk, self-sabotaging offhandedess, but the crystal-clear 1980s sheen of those Replacements records gave Paul Westerberg nothing to hide behind, while Lopez had a little more luck in the hiding department. For me that’s part of the appeal – these masterpieces buried in muck – but for the first time listener you sometimes just hear the muck and don’t see the jewels sparkling in it.
What you might hear, though, if you listen closely, was that across their five albums Lopez and his bandmates were secretly laying the blueprint for a lot of what indie rock bands went on to attempt in the 2000’s. For example there’s that reverb wash, which now sounds pretty standard compared to that buzzband you’re listening to as you read this piece. And Lopez’s writing hits pretty much every mark that all the big indie bands that still try to write songs try to hit, just with a lot more confidence, accuracy, humor, and style. To put it in a word that the last decade has probably made you sick of reading, these songs are “anthemic.” There’s an inescapable, relentless forward momentum to them, to their hooky, soaring choruses, with a singer yelping at the very edge of his range, using extremely emotionally charged language.* The best part about this, though, is that Lopez avoids all the excesses we now associate with music like that. There are no strings or glockenspiels or sing-alongs, just muck, and melody, and more muck. It’s very much a little, almost insular rock band, and rarely is anybody else pulled onstage. Where someone else might oil-paint a dramatic vista, the R*A*T’s do a sloppy charcoal sketch, but the view is just as breathtaking. And there’s a streak of intentionally melodramatic gallows humor that means that the Rock*A*Teens are never, ever self-serious. The bandname is great because the word “teens” is key – Lopez gets that there’s something juvenile about getting so worked up, so instead of playing it straight he infuses his lyrics with a campy tone that feels appropriately borrowed from 1950s teen entertainments, touched with a trashy, down-in-the-mouth barroom element. You can see it in the song titles alone: “Don’t Destroy This Night,” “Leave What’s Left of Me,” “Teen Muscle / Teen Hustle,” “Never Really Ever Had It.” There’s a grimy loucheness to the lyrics that makes them feel unwholesome; “Misty Took a Holiday” celebrates the title character on vacation from her meds, on “Ether Sunday” the R*A*Ts sound like a swampy Southern Joy Division as they tell the tale of a weird loner sitting in his house huffing ether while hearing children playing outside, and “Bloodhound” is a sleazy love song in which Lopez describes himself as a police dog snuffling through the mud searching for the scent of his beloved’s skirt.
To use another word critics have flung at some modern indie artists (including me), these songs are (ugh) literary. Which is to say Lopez really cares about language, although he tries to pretend that he doesn’t, and he doesn’t really care about impressing you. The lyrics in these songs are perfect, spine-tingling, exactly right-on, not too smart and not too dumb. They also feel literary in a very quintessentially Southern way. Again, I’ll cite titles: “Appamatox Panic Attack,” “The Rockabilly Ghetto,” “Across the Piedmont.” And Lopez’s words are wedded to melodies that are always perfect for them, melodies that seem to be saying the same things those words are saying. Like Bill Callahan, Lopez is really smart with a phrase that feels sturdy and common but that, re-appropriated, seems to be saying so much about people and their emotions. Take “I Could Have Just Died,” which in the context of the R*A*T’s surging eighth-notes sounds like it could be either describing a teen’s gawky embarrassment or a genuine and narrowly-avoided brush with death, with both interpretations given equal emotional weight.
It really pisses me off that the R*A*T’s never got their due, though I can see why. They were a little too sloppy. You couldn’t tell what the guy was saying. Sometimes I think the main and most depressing reason they didn’t get famous is that music critics are too lazy to push the “shift” key twice in order to type their name. Like another band from Northern Georgia who just reunited recently, a lot of indie musicians took what the R*A*T’s did and (wittingly or un-) retooled it for big money, money that the teens themselves never saw. But that just makes their legend more pure.
I’m putting “I Could Have Just Died” down at the bottom of the page, and I’ll also put a song called “Car and Driver” which is not my very favorite R*A*T’s song but has always been a good one for getting people into them. But really there are so many perfect songs by this band it’s hard to choose one. Any of their albums would be a smart buy, but if you want an intro to them you could listen to these songs in his order:
- Car and Driver (from Sweet Bird of Youth)
- Don’t Destroy This Night (from Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall)
- Black Metal Stars (from Golden Time)
- N.Y by Helicopter (from Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall)
- Your Heart or Your Life (from Cry)
- The Rockabilly Ghetto (from Cry)
- Across the Piedmont (from Golden Time)
- Misty Took a Holiday (from Golden Time)
- Black Ice (from Cry)
- Ether Sunday (from Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall)
- Down with People (from Rock*A*Teens)
- Bloodhound (from Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall)
- Little Caesar on a Bicycle (from Golden Time)
- Make It New Again (from Sweet Bird of Youth)
- I Could Have Just Died (from Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall)
- Please Don’t Go Downtown Tonight (from Sweet Bird of Youth)
- Never Really Ever Had It (from Cry)
- If You Only Knew (from Sweet Bird of Youth)
And also, as I mentioned, they’re reuniting this summer for two shows at Atlanta’s legendary venue the Earl on June 6th and 7th. So you should go to that if you’re in the area.
*If you’ve read this far, I’ll confess that our song “All the Time Every Day” was a direct attempt to write a song in the R*A*T’s style.**
**Also, I think Beth is going to be mad at me for writing this article as she considers herself the world’s foremost R*A*T’s fan so Beth I’m sorry.
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Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity