Tenement Halls Ring Out in the Spirit of the R*A*Ts

Charleston City Paper | November 22, 2005
The Tenement Halls are the latest rock'n'roll project from singer-songwriter Chris Lopez, one of the best songwriters I've ever had the privilege to play drums with. Lopez, 40, is the kind of romantic who knows how to find beauty in busted Fender amps, two-tone Chevy Beauvilles on their last legs, slighty-out-of-tune guitars, severely out-of-tune pianos, a burnt Styrofoam cup of gas station coffee, a 20-year-old pair of leather dress shoes, and sloppy swing beats with a lot of stagger and sway.

I first saw Lopez perform in Athens in the very early '90s as the guitarist for the oddball Atlanta-based (or, more accurately, Cabbagetown-based) bands Opal Foxx Quartet, Dirt, and Seersucker, in which he was the main singer and songwriter. By 1994, Lopez had formed "Orbisonic" quartet The Rock*A*Teens -- a bass-less band featuring Lopez on lead vocals and guitar, Justin Hughes and Kelly Hogan on additional guitars, and drummer Chris Verene. Where Dirt and Seersucker banged away with a heavy, 4/4 sound akin to some of the most sneering Touch & Go rock of the time, the Rock*A*Teens played with more swing (mostly in 6/8 time), much more reverb, and a humorous sense of romance and sorrow.

The R*A*Ts played spirited love songs and slow-moving tunes that broke your heart and cracked you up simultaneously. They sounded like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds trying their best to provide high-quality entertainment at the high school prom.

I was asked to sit in on drums with the band in 1998 on a super-low-budget national tour in support of their Merge Records debut Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall. Although I was never asked to "officially" join the band, I kept time on three records and a half-dozen tours up until late 2001, when Lopez and the band called for a long-deserved break. After a seven-year run (including two albums on Daemon Records and three on Merge) and a few lineup changes, the R*A*Ts played a final show in Atlanta at the Echo Lounge (r.i.p.) on New Year's Eve, 2002.

That's where the Tenement Halls story begins. The songwriter took his time, crafted a new set of piano-driven songs, and recorded most of the instrument tracks himself (with help from a few friends) at a neighborhood studio. The band gradually came together during the process, with former R*A*Ts keyboardist Jeffrey Wiggins, drummer Will Fritesi (also of Atlanta’s Hubcap City), and bassist Fran Capitanelli (of Atlanta power trio The Tom Collins). The sweeping 11-song debut, Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells, was released over the summer on Merge.

"I wanted to get into a situation where I could make the records I wanted to make without compromising," Lopez told Stomp & Stammer writer Glen Sarvady in a recent interview. "This one is a little less noisy. I wanted to be a little more concise with the songs, less sonically oriented, and control the massive amounts of reverb."

As the band make the long drives from Atlanta, look for the full group with photographer Matt Hinton filling in on bass for Capitanelli. I'll be there in spirit ready to clap and howl.

Charleston City Paper

Founded in 1997, the locally owned and operated City Paper is Charleston's only weekly alternative newspaper and the second-largest publication in the metro Charleston area. Reaching a strong mix of active, affluent locals and tourists, the City Paper has thrived...
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