I approach Record Store Day with equal amounts of disdain and desire befitting a former record store employee. I will cop to something approaching excitement for RSD 2013 reissues like Orange Juice and the Urinals, and a new book, Enjoy The Experience: Homemade Records 1958-1992 from record collector extraordinaire, Johan Kugelberg.
But when the good times wear off, I usually come down to find a bag of unnecessary, expensive reissued treats, and an aching feeling that “I’ve been cheat-ted” and the real gems still lie in the out-of-print, out-of-reach ether.
This is particularly true for the many great, but unheralded ’90s bands who never received a vinyl pressing at the time, and now largely exist as scratched CDs, poorly ripped MP3s, or worse, fading memories. For my coin, there’s no better candidate for reexamination and reissue treatment than The Rock*A*Teens of Cabbagetown, Georgia.
Flashback to ‘96: I’m rifling through a box of promos while bored at the record shop, when I find their self-titled CD. It’s hard to believe that I gave a band on the Indigo Girls’ Daemon records imprint a chance, but the moment I heard “Who Killed Bobby Fuller,” a noisy, reverb-soaked whodunit that ponders the shady circumstances of the Texas rocker’s death; I was intrigued.
On Cry, their second album, the Rock*A*Teens emerged full-grown. Tracks like “Never Really Had It,” and “Losers Weepers,” displayed their knack for de-familiarizing early 60s rock and soul sonics without losing the hooks. “Cherry Red Compilation,” a love-song to the U.K. record label famous for post-punk class acts like Felt, and ’60s psychedelic pills like the Misunderstood—revealed their formula: the energy and attitude of post-punk applied to AM radio oldies. But it was “Black Ice,” which transformed Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” riff into a menacing soundtrack for a misfit’s escape from Mississippi ruin, that demonstrated their mastery of shifting, noisy reverb-soaked ragers into sweeping cinematic choruses.
When I saw them live at the 40 Watt in 1997, I thought we’d all go in an explosion of vintage 12AX7 tubes, moldy tolex and Tetanus coated reverb springs. Employing the oldest and junkiest looking kit of vintage equipment I’d ever seen, R*A*T surged forward, led by Chris Lopez’s screaming Hazel Moats-inspired sermons. There was a strange tension between their atomic energy, and the dark, cavernous reverb, which tried to dampen their fury. They were sublime, and remained so on every return encounter.
In the trio of records released by Merge from 1998–2000, (Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall, Golden Time and their final, Sweet Bird of Youth) Lopez perfected his narrative craft for depicting wayward characters adrift in a modern Southern wasteland. Tracks like “Ether Sunday”, where the narrator attends a church service on amyl nitrate, the sinking ship outside the window in “The Wreck in Front of Your House”, or the “garage” rock suicide in “Stardust 680AM” demonstrated a penchant for macabre humour in the tradition of fellow Southerners Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah.
Sonically, the band learned to channel their energy into sweeping Spector-inspired arrangements that could writhe, coil and strike like a half-smashed copperhead on Georgia Route 106. If Athens’ Elephant 6 bands were channeling West Coast psychedelics, the Rock*A*Teens wore the black leather, bad attitude pulp of the Velvet Underground.
Anachronistic and underappreciated at the time, for me the Rock*A*Teens catalog has grown richer since they called it quits in the early 2000s. The characters in their songs are more familiar, their plights more real; the melodies constantly reveal some new attraction. It’s hard to think I’m alone in this love.
I once pleaded with fellow fan Henry Owings of Chunklet to reissue their discography on vinyl as he’d done for Olivia Tremor Control. He replied, “Tell y’what, you find me 1,000 people that have bought R*A*T CDs and we’ll talk.”
This should be easy, right?
By Daniel PresnellBC, British Columbia