Tenement Halls : Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells
As a member of American gothic (in the Grant Wood sense) rock group The Rock*A*Teens, Chris Lopez played some gleefully voodoo-cursed and David Lynch-inspired rock `n’ roll. They weren’t as infamous as fire and brimstone peers 16 Horsepower or as legendary as their more direct influences, Nick Cave and Gun Club. But they played a good, dark sort of reverb-soaked rock, just the same. But after all the gloom and demon possession, Lopez must have decided that playing pop music actually is a pretty sweet gig, and did just that on his first record under the moniker Tenement Halls.
Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells, Tenement Halls’ introduction to the world, is a Rickenbacker jangling, Rhodes plinking, brushed-drum shuffling good time. A shade of the old gothic sound still lingers a bit, though this time around, Lopez is clearly going for something that, well, sounds good on a Summer afternoon, rather than on a deserted highway after midnight. However, Tenement Halls still ain’t the Beach Boys. While Knitting Needles is closer to being a record that everyone can enjoy, there’s still some baroque, dusty flourishes that keep it from being pure pop.
Thanks to some haunting electric piano played by Shannon Wright, opener “Silver in the Silt” retains a little bit of spookiness, despite its otherwise bouncy and catchy melody. Follower “Up and Over the Turnstiles” is more reverb-heavy and straightforward, a rock `n’ roll song in the most classic sense of the word. “As Long As It Takes” carries on with the bouncy melodicism, albeit with organ and saloon piano, adding a bit of Southern atmosphere to the almost Beatlesque sound.
It isn’t until “Charlemagne” that Lopez truly immerses himself in pure pop, playing a bass fuzzy, guitar shimmering pop tune, ever so slightly reminiscent of “Dear Prudence,” Siouxsie and The Banshees’ version moreso than The Beatles, curiously. And it’s worth noting that it’s the second awesome song we’ve heard this year with Charlemagne in the title (see also: The Hold Steady “Charlemagne in Sweatpants”). Lyrically, the song paints a stark portrait of a loved one returning from an institution (“Yer hair’s turned gray/from all the pills they made you take upstate/in yer tiny room/flying up and down the avenues on yer little ledbelly broom.“). And these curious and even slightly uncomfortable themes only add to the album’s mystique, prompting one to wonder if Lopez truly had abandoned his old band’s ways.
All the while, the music remains so fun and enjoyable, as in the upbeat, high speed “Plenty is Never Enough,” the bell-ringing “My Wicked Wicked Ways” or the organ and banjo heavy “StarlessNight.” Still, there are darker sides in between, like the sparse ballad “Marry Me” or the the carnivalesque dirge “When the Swifts Come Home.” There isn’t a bad song in the bunch, and despite the seemingly bipolar nature of the album, Lopez’s fine craftsmanship is a surprisingly cohesive epoxy, cementing together the peppy tunes with the perilously downcast ones. It’s still summer listening, but only for those that aren’t completely uncomfortable with a lingering sense of melancholy.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.