Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tenement Halls. Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells (Merge, 2005)

"Do you believe there's a place for us/ Up and over thee turnstiles?"

Merge boasts a pretty impressive roster, and pretty much always has since it was founded by indie impresarios Superchunk twenty years ago. The number of good to great acts put out by the label -- to include Dinosaur Jr., Destroyer, Neutral Milk Hotel, Polvo, Spoon, Teenage Fanclub, the Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields and scores of others -- runs the gamut from sugary power pop to experimental guitar noise to thorny post-punk to cabaret showtunes to bleep-tastic electronica and beyond. Merge is more than a label; it's an institution.

In 2005, Tenement Halls -- headed by former Rock*A*Teen singer/guitarist Chris Lopez -- added its name to the Merge annals, releasing their debut -- and so far only -- LP, the fetching psych-pop collection Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells. Moving in a slightly different direction than the buzzing six-string bluster of the Rock*A*Teens and towards a more intimate, literary, singer-songwriter space bedecked with lush multi-instrumental passages and blinding bright melodies, Lopez has managed to craft a winning handful of deceptively straightforward indie pop outings.

Knitting Needles and Bicycle Bells starts strong with the sweetly shimmering "Silver From The Silt," in which Lopez cheerily delivers images like "a wolf looking down/ On the town/ Wondering which house he should hit this time," before abandoning himself to a series of wistful "la la la"s. The opener serves as a nice appetizer to the rest of the LP, which turns out to be full of small-scale grandeur and budget-priced luxury.

"Up & Over Thee Turnstiles" crashes on waves of soaring guitars, "Charlemagne" jangles addictively behind Lopez's excited lament that, "We never even went to bed/ We spent all our time just a-fuckin' with each other's heads," and the loping "Now She Knows" rides a sing song melody into a western sunset. Album standout "Plenty Is Never Enough" is pure sugar rush, a galloping ode to overindulgence and all its rewards, marked by violently swinging acoustic strums and an insistent core melody. "One is too many, yeah/ And plenty is never enough," explodes the unforgettable chorus, which could be Tenement Halls' motto.

At times, Tenement Halls is somewhat reminiscent of the Decemberists, due largely to Lopez's voice -- an imperfect but charismatic tenor -- and delivery -- slightly feverish and unbalanced. The gently swaying "Marry Me," with its vaguely sea-shanty-esque cadence, is the album's best example of this tendency. However, unlike the Decemberists, Tenement Halls don't come across as precious or contrived, and lack the kind of posturing and self-awareness which so often annoys me about the Portland band. There's little artifice in Lopez's work, which, while certainly touching on the dramatic, stays firmly grounded in the turf of "not insufferable." Elsewhere, as on the steadily pounding "My Wicked Wicked Ways," Lopez seems to be doing his best Win Butler impression, nailing the Arcade Fire's patented high-flying theatrics.

Lopez is no stranger to a good song, a gifted composer and arranger with an eagle eye for sterling melodies. Here's hoping that Tenement Halls continues down the path it started on a few years ago, adding more excellent LPs to Merge's ever-expanding catalogue of riches.