We weren't allowed to leave the church grounds without an adult. Sex workers on one corner, drugs on another, and a whole lot of freaks and outcasts somewhere between. A good 40-minute drive away from the comfort of the suburbs, east Atlanta is where I first saw posters for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, discarded needles on the nearby playground and punks in shredded leather jackets. In the '90s, unbeknownst to this sheltered, Sunday school-going boy, an eccentric music scene emerged from the dilapidated, dangerous, but cheap Cabbagetown neighborhood. Cat Power's Chan Marshall, Smoke, the Opal Foxx Quartet, The Jody Grind — artists with raw voices and stranger stories. It was like Flannery O'Connor started several different bands.
Borne of this desperate and creative scene, The Rock*A*Teens' not-quite-rock haze was thick and mysterious, like a pair of cigarette-smoke-caked velvet lounge drapes smothering the stage, drenched in reverb. Led by guitarist Christopher Lopez, the band released a handful of records in the late '90s and early 2000s that would influence the likes of Okkervil River's Will Sheff and both A.C. Newman and Dan Bejar — to bring The New Pornographers' membership full circle, early Rock*A*Teens member and solo artist in her own right Kelly Hogan would later become Neko Case's go-to backing vocalist.
Now, 18 years since its last studio album, and few since the band started playing sporadic shows again, The Rock*A*Teens return with Sixth House. Joined by guitarist Justin Hughes, bassist William R. Joiner and drummer Ballard Lesemann, Lopez blows smoke from the screen of past records by dialing down the reverb (just a bit) to let the characters of his songs flourish.
With a garage-rock swagger and shake, "Go Tell Everybody" tells the story of Bartholomew, Jesus' apostle who brought Christianity to India and Armenia, and, according to hagiography, was flayed alive and beheaded.
"Stake your tent yeah, prepare the meal / Start torching all the greenery / Start chewing all the scenery," Lopez sings with a wild howl in his voice, mimicking missionary fervor, but also warning that ideals will sometimes get you killed. This is the kind of darkly cinematic screenwriting that made those old Rock*A*Teens records so weirdly vibrant — death and triumph wrapped in an ambivalent apparition.
Sixth House comes out June 29 via Merge Records.