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Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells

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Rock*A*Teens frontman Chris Lopez returns with Tenement Halls, and their first album is both a departure from and a continuation of the earlier group's sound. The Rock*A*Teens were distinguished by the almost impossible amount of reverb they drenched their songs with, the gripping quality of Lopez's songs, and his keening wail of a vocal. On Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells, Lopez (who plays all the instruments except for drums on a couple of songs and produced as well) peels back the reverb to human levels and adds lots of organ and piano, percussion, and acoustic guitar to brighten the room and add texture. That's not to say he has forsaken reverb; there is still more than enough here to fulfill anyone's minimum reverb requirements. Lopez also lightens things by toning down his vocals somewhat — by howling less and using dynamics more he makes the songs easier to swallow the first time around. But that's not to say he remotely sounds under control most of the time; he still careens and swoops through the songs like Barry Sanders running through a secondary. As for the songs, they are perhaps his strongest batch to date. They revolve around the usual Southern gothic themes of mental instability, loneliness, desolation, and infidelity, yet are almost all delivered with a disarming brightness and cheer that keep the gloom from settling in. You may never hear a peppier song about the ins and outs of keeping sane friends on the beam than "Charlemagne," or a bouncier ditty about broken-down desperation than "Starless Night." The first time through the record you might not even notice how melancholy the words are; they work as an undercurrent that brings you back to the album again to dig deeper into the muck. Songs like "When the Swifts Come Home" and "Up & Over Thee Turnstiles" are the work of an artist in full control of his abilities and — more importantly — are about as good as indie rock gets. The Rock*A*Teens never displayed the depth and soul on offer here. Tenement Halls is an altogether more listenable and intellectually and emotionally satisfying experience, and Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells is the 2005 American indie rock equivalent of the kind of records the Kinks were making in the Village Green era: parochial, intimate, painfully literate, and pretty close to brilliant.

Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells, Tenement Halls
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