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The Rock*A*Teens - Sixth House Music Album Reviews

The Rock*A*Teens - Sixth House Music Album Reviews
In the 1990s, the Georgia underdogs influenced a generation of indie rockers with their theatrical, reverb-soaked anthems. Nearly two decades later, their first reunion album is more than a throwback.

The Rock*A*Teens have always sounded somewhat zombified. Between 1994 and 2001, the Cabbagetown, Atlanta underdogs blended indie rock, doo-wop, and rockabilly to make unwholesome, reverb-soaked anthems that staggered relentlessly forward, coated in cobwebs and dust. Led by vocalist Chris Lopez, who sang in a brainless howl that cracked helplessly between words, the group often ended songs with bursts of noise or by suddenly launching into a different tune. Their music always flirted with collapse—but it also teased an ascent from the dirt.

Sixth House marks the band’s first album in 18 years, and, unsurprisingly, rebirth suits them. Following a slew of reunion shows that kicked off in 2014, these ten new songs find the quartet in charming and rejuvenated spirits. They may lack the lunacy of should-have-been classics like 1999’s Golden Time, but they make up for it in amiability. Jangling, patient first single “Go Tell Everybody” sets the pace for the record. Its ceaseless spiral of hooks feels joyous, like running into an old friend and catching up for so long that you end up late for work—the perfect reintroduction for a band that has always been both proudly old-fashioned and, in their own humble way, visionary.

This prescience explains why Sixth House is more than just a ’90s indie rock throwback. In the decade after their breakup, the Rock*A*Teens’ impact spread throughout the genre, as the Walkmen, Destroyer, Okkervil River, and the New Pornographers all rode the band’s sweeping, theatrical energy to greater success. On the new album, Lopez’s influence is apparent as early as opener “Billy Really,” a song that seems to find its legs in real time, with a seasick acoustic guitar riff and a rhythm that keeps rebooting. This same clumsy momentum gave the band’s earlier records an emotional urgency that contrasted with the nonchalance of American indie rock peers like Pavement and Yo La Tengo. Nothing seemed to come naturally in their music, and that only made it more alluring.

Lopez has also maintained his sense of humor. Like Bob Dylan singing Sinatra, he has a way of making the most innocuous lyrics feel foreboding. In the swooning “Turn and Smile,” he gets his heart broken by somebody whistling one of his old songs. “I always knew that this would end in tears,” he shouts. “I didn’t think that they’d be mine.” The breakup ballad could be about a romance or a rock band, yet Lopez’s delivery doesn’t sound mournful; it sounds more like he wants to punch a hole through the wall. As with any of his most memorable lyrics—when he begged you not to destroy this night, or when he got all weird about cats in your head—the only way to respond is to back away slowly and nod.

Abandoning their characteristic lo-fi murk in favor of a cleaner focus, Sixth House emphasizes the band’s dynamics like none of their previous records. If the joy of their songs once came from digging through the rubble to find the bones of pop music, the Rock*A*Teens are now much less shy about their technical chops. Former members Kelly Hogan (now an accomplished singer-songwriter and a consistent collaborator with Neko Case) and drummer Chris Verene (who left to pursue photography) are absent. But the current lineup—Lopez along with guitarist Justin Hughes, bassist William R. Joiner, and drummer Ballard Lesemann—brings a relaxed, refined energy. Several songs feel like new territory for the band. “Listen, Sonny Boy” is a swirling sing-along that effortlessly channels the Kinks; “Closest to Heaven” surges with a diabolical refrain, like Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” rewritten as a threat.

Since their breakup, the Rock*A*Teens have developed a mythos as tied to their failures as it is to their successes. Despite their extraordinary catalog and lasting influence, they never quite found the audience their music deserved. Lopez once referred to their tours as “death marches,” and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar has recalled seeing them play in Montreal to just nine people. (“I’m pretty sure four of them I dragged out myself personally,” he added.) But on Sixth House, by embracing the spirit of their best records without leaning on those releases’ do-or-die, hard-luck intensity, they’ve found a way to settle comfortably into their strengths. An old Rock*A*Teens song declared, “Our future was then.” Now that they’ve given us some time to catch up, their present is right now.

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