The Rock*A*Teens' latest album, Sweet Bird of Youth, opens with "Car and Driver," a deceptively sweet tale that, soon enough, turns into a warning pilfered from the Roxichord-loving loins of Sam Coomes. The organ jaunts along, covering melody and bass, with drums beating a soft path through a lane of willowy guitars; for a moment, The Rock*A*Teens' lead singer-guitarist Chris Lopez almost sounds as though he's fronting Quasi. Then the voice slides into Lopez's signature blue baritone notes, and the resemblance is lost among the piano flourishes and pounding organ fuzz. As the first song ends, sitar-like guitar riffs open "If I Wanted to Be Famous (I'd Have Shot Someone)," and it's clear that the rumors about The Rock*A*Teens' "going eclectic" are at least partly true.But this isn't a band unfamiliar with a little fine tuning, and that's what The Rock*A*Teens (which features Lopez, cofounder Justin David Hughes, William Joiner, and Ballard Lesemann) have done here. Though Sweet Bird of Youth features sounds not found on the band's previous once-a-year releases (Merge Records' Golden Time; Baby, a Little Rain Must Fall; Cry; and its self-titled debut on Daemon Records), the punch and fire of The Rock*A*Teens' rockabilly roots haven't been tamed either. The album builds toward climactic rage, with the full force coming to a head as Sweet Bird of Youth closes with "No Books About It" and "Pretty Thoughts Strike Down the Band."
Where Golden Time dealt mostly with boy-girl relationships (the pitfalls and missteps, mostly), the aptly titled Sweet Bird of Youth casts a backward glance at a youth filled with the innocence and stifling familiarity of living in a small town--in this case Cabbagetown, Georgia, where the band was founded and where it recorded the album on its own in a storefront. At times nostalgic (the organ occasionally leans toward sounds borrowed from carnival midways or old soul records), the frenzy hits in "No Books About It" when Lopez questions the way small communities encourage members to release their bottled-up-to-bursting emotions by throwing vases or sewing dolls, keeping anger confined to acceptable arenas instead of exposing it through writing, singing, or filmmaking. Armed with a megaphone rather than a microscope, Lopez leads Hughes, Joiner, and Lesemann into the anthem-like closer in which he calls for someone to "strangle the band with yer guitar cords, strike down the band with a Golden Globe."
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The ardor of Golden Time's "Little Caesar on a Bicycle" remains intact on Sweet Bird of Youth, only with the bass-thumping punkabilly fused with the '60s rock swagger of a kid discovering his dad's Henry Mancini and Kurt Weill records (aided by the band's duet with Shannon Wright on "It's Destiny"). The yearning Southern Gothic narratives unleashed in the previous album's "Across the Piedmont" and "In the Woods of Hemlock Park" continue throughout with song-stories that ache like poems but still burn like rock and roll, including such cuts as "Please Don't Go Downtown Tonight," "I Hope You Never See Me Like This," and "Put It Right Out of Your Mind," in which Lopez sings, "It ain't no shame to come from a dingy place/Sometimes you just got to leave home just to find out where yer from." Sometimes coming home feels just as good.