September 02, 2005

Tenement Halls "Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells"

Chris Lopez’ previous band, The Rock*A*Teens, dealt in dark rock music covered in an unholy amount of reverb. Some people dug it, other people thought they should get over it, because, well, they were too good a band to hide their pretty melodies underneath such an ungodly-and ultimately monotonous-racket. One always suspected that underneath all the noise were some really great songs, and those who saw the band live experienced their songs without the reverb overdose. In 2001, the band broke up, and four years later, Chris Lopez has returned with a new project, Tenement Halls. Though he still sounds like a Southern version of Gene Love Jezebel’s Jay Aston, thankfully, he’s all but abandoned the reverb, allowing his songwriting to finally stand out.

Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells is deeply indebted to the past-especially 60s pop, but it’s not a case of a band imitating a sound. For Tenement Halls, Lopez took inspiration from bands like the Kinks and the Beatles, and applied it to mid-90s indie-rock as well as the Rock*A*Teen’s sensibilities. In fact, the rootsy music and the dank lyrics might lead you to think you were listening to the bizarro-world version of The Shins. At its worse, Tenement Halls sounds like a rip-off of label mates Destroyer, with Lopez’s singing occasionally taking on an over-the-top turn not unlike what you’d expect from Dan Bejar. But unlike those bands, Lopez’s songs are sad and depressing. On “Marry Me” he sings with a pained lilt in his voice, calling out to the woman who abandoned him at the altar, singing as if she were still in his life. Then there’s “Starless Night,” a song with a wonderfully upbeat melody but with downright depressing lyrics.

The main problem with Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells is similar to the main complaint of the Rock*A*Teens-he can write great songs and catchy melodies, but he buries them in poor mixing. Listening to Knitting Needles is frustrating, because one wishes that the songs didn’t sound so damn muddy. It’s hard to pay attention, because the record starts to sound monotonous two or three songs in, because even though the songs seem to have some interesting arrangements-toy pianos, wurlitzers, banjos, strings-it’s downright impossible to tell what’s going on. When the songs are a bit more stripped down, like on “Promise a Place,” the record sounds really good, and one wishes that the mixing process had produced more songs like this.

Tenement Halls could be a good start. There are some interesting ideas to be found here, but ultimately the record falls apart underneath a poor sound, and that’s a shame, because Lopez is much better than that. Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells is a disappointment, and hopefully Lopez will rectify these problems when it comes time for the next record.

--Joseph Kyle

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