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An inside look into the Rock*A*Teens' catalog

The Cabbagetown band's members, friends, and fans discuss some of the group's most memorable songs



Throughout this summer, the Rock*A*Teens will be reuniting for their first shows in 12 years. The Cabbagetown band's return is a long-awaited moment for many of its longtime devotees. But for others, these performances will serve as a first-time introduction.That particularly includes a new wave of younger fans who have unknowingly listened to other indie-rock acts inspired by the reverb-drenched Atlanta outfit.

While compiling the Rock*A*Teens' oral history, many of the indie-rock group's members, friends, and fans told CL stories and provided explanations about their songs. Rather than compile a playlist of the Rock*A*Teens' best songs, we've curated some of their seminal tracks based on the people who know the Rock*A*Teens best.

Justin Gage, founder and editor of music blog Aquarium Drunkard: "Down With People"

They have this timeless quality. If you put on Beck's Odelay, that's a very '90s sounding record in terms of production and what he's doing. That's not to say it's unoriginal, but it's an era-centric record. But that Rock*A*Teens debut could've come out yesterday.

Recently, I've been putting on Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall and Cry a lot, so the third and second records. I try to play the Rock*A*Teens on my weekly [Sirius XMU] radio show at least once a month. In the context of my show, I play "Down With People" a lot from the first record. Off Golden Time, I play "Black Metal Scars" a lot, that's a great one. I play those quite a bit because I think they're good for radio. I like their energy. My show ebbs and flows, but "Black Metal Scars" swings as Lopez is emotive and out there. "Down With People," which kicks off that first record, is just an in-your-face garage blast [that says], "Here we are, we're the Rock*A*Teens."

David Barbe, Athens, Ga., producer: "Return as a Bird"

The first time I recorded them was before we made [The Rock*A*Teens]. I recorded the original Rock*A*Teens lineup there with just two mics in the room. I remember one of the songs was "Return as a Bird." Chris told me that song was about Allen . ... A key part of the Rock*A*Teens story is the tragic death of Allen from a heroin overdose. They were hanging out at the house one day and this bird kept coming back and hanging out. It seemed like it was just part of them and understood what they were saying. It was like, "Hey, man, maybe that's Allen."

Chris Verene, the Rock*A*Teens drummer, 1994-98: "Latin Social"

The first album cover [has] the young teenagers on the porch. They look kind of older than their years and serious. But they're serious. We felt like we, as teenagers ourselves, had that kind of spirit. One song, "Latin Social," is about Justin and I being in the Latin Club, which is the nerdiest possible club you can ever have. We felt like, as outcast teens, we wanted to be represented by real teens.

  • Courtesy of The Rock*A*Teens

Amy Ray, Indigo Girls co-founder and Daemon Records owner: "Black Ice"

"Latin Social" was a good song. It struck me. "Black Ice" was amazing. He's like a Marlon Brando in some ways with his presentation and singing. His imagery always reminded me of classic Tennessee Williams moments, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or On the Waterfront. I thought what was so cool about him was that he could sing about a friend who passed, or talking about, or thought a lot about, in this way that was so romantic and dramatic. To me, it spoke to the bonds of friendship and being allies in a world that feels so hard to get through. It was in a way that reminded me of James Dean and all the romantic characters of our time. I thought his music was so cinematic. I always described him as a toreador of punk rock. He could be so dramatic and cool about it.

Ballard Lesemann, Flagpole music editor 1996-2002, the Rock*A*Teens drummer 1998-present: "Teen Hustle/Teen Muscle"

Right after that first Merge record came out, I remember writing about it in Flagpole and trying to talk about "Teen Hustle" and describe the tone and sound and mood of the album. ... The first song on that album sounds like something from 1959. It's this weird, swinging, sloppy, snappy, strange combination of old vintage rock styles.

Dan Bejar, Destroyer frontman and the New Pornographers member: "N.Y. By Helicopter"

How I discovered the band was through their records. Oddly enough, there was a woman in Montreal who was the main proponent of the Rock*A*Teens in Canada. She had a late-night radio show that had gone on for years, and stopped a few years back, called "Brave New Waves." Her name was Patti Schmidt. That's probably how I first heard the band - she played the first record on Merge, Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall. I think she played "N.Y. By Helicopter." That one got around. Later on, I'd talk to friends and they'd turn out to Rock*A*Teens obsessive. It's kind of the same old story of a band that doesn't make much mainstream headway at all in their time. But to the people who were into the band, they're deeply fanatical. I was one of those people who got into their records real quickly and went in deep.

Will Sheff, Okkervil River frontman: "I Could've Just Died"

The Rock*A*Teens do a bunch of things really well. One of them is lyrics. One of them is this sort of go-for-broke performance, like they're all going to die after they finish playing so they have to press everything in that one performance. And at the same time they don't really care that they're about to die. One of them is melody and arrangement. To me "I Could Have Just Died" is kind of the sweet spot of performance and lyrics and melody. It's not necessarily my favorite because I have so many favorites. I really love "Black Ice," I really love "Rockabilly Ghetto," I really love "Don't Destroy This Night," I really love "Your Heart Or Your Life," I really love "Easter Sunday." There's so many songs. It's really difficult to choose. When I'm trying to introduce people to the Rock*A*Teens, first I play "Car and Driver" because that has that simple repeating chorus. Then I play them "Don't Destroy This Night," which I think is maybe their most properly ... I don't know. I don't really discriminate. That song was chosen almost arbitrarily. I think I get the most consistent kick out of that one, but it's not necessarily my favorite.

  • Courtesy of The Rock*A*Teens

Beth Wawerna, Bird of Youth frontwoman: "Please Don't Go Downtown Tonight"

There's a sense of humor to what Chris [Lopez] is dong as a lyricist, but there's also this devastating display of emotion, vulnerability, and heartbreak. Sometimes that sneaks up on you because it's cloaked in this raucous freight train of a rock song, but it's almost always there. One of my favorite songs is "Please Don't Go Downtown Tonight." Chris is such a great storyteller. He can take you through a narrative in such an unexpected way, through these turns of phrase that are just really beautiful and splintered and gnarled. This song is so full of yearning, pleading, and sadness... love, nostalgia, and regret. As with so many RATs songs, you take this journey with Lopez and by the end you're both just broken and gutted and panting. It's completely exhilarating.

Laura Ballance, Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk bassist: "Don't Destroy This Night"

I think it's just the raw emotion that comes through. It's not just in the way he sings, but also in his lyrics. They're dynamic and they're catchy. He can turn a devastating phrase, you know. He comes out with these lyrics that are so poignant sometimes. You can just feel his pain.

Kelly Hogan, the Rock*A*Teens guitarist, 1994-1997: "The Rockabilly Ghetto"

[Chris Lopez was] not afraid to work on a grand scale. Especially given how shitty our instruments were versus how grand our chord progressions were. [He was] like a professional. The songs were epic, very anthemic. It was like crazy, yankin' your hair out like Johnnie Ray and then there was humor in it too. It's dry and salty like a potato chip! This sort of bittersweet humor.

Philip Frobos, Carnivores bassist/vocalist: "In the Woods of Hemlock Park"

I bought [Golden Time] and thought it was really strange music. I started to really like it. Initially, I was really drawn to Chris [Lopez's] odd vocals. Now I take away from [it] the instrumentation. It's a record that's full of so many good songs where the collection itself is great. Like "In the Woods Hemlock Park" has really awesome melodies, guitar, and bass rhythms.

A.C. Newman, the New Pornographers frontman: "Betwixt or Between"

There are points, when I've heard them and thought, "Is this the Arcade Fire?" A song like "Betwixt or Between" sounds like it could've been off the first Arcade Fire EP. They sort of pioneered that epic sound. That larger-than-life, hyper-emotional [sound].

Henry Owings, Chunklet founder and editor: "Black Metal Stars"

I don't think the best art is stuff that you get the second it's presented to you. I think a lot of times it requires thinking and paying attention and sitting down and hunkering down and just turning everything off and turning the music on and soaking it in. Really, I think the "I get it" moment I would say is akin to the moment in The Blues Brothers where the John Belushi character is in the church and the sun comes down on him and he's like, 'We've gotta get the band back together!' It was that same sort of moment. 'I get it.' For fear of pointing fingers, I don't think any of the band member's talent had increased in the two, three months since I had last seen them at the Cotton Club opening up for Superchunk. I think Ballard was the catalyst for me. Ballard was to me and still is kind of like the all-purpose player.

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