The best and most criminally underappreciated garage band.
Tuscaloosa, Alabama is a town of great ignominy. It was the birthplace of former KKK Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton. It was most recently in the news in 2011 when a devastating tornado killed more than 40 of its residents and injured hundreds more. Nick Saban can often be found there. Just awful, awful stuff.
Faced with this reality, it’s past time for Tuscaloosans to forge a new identity for themselves. Up until the late 2000s, they had ideal candidates to represent their new public face: the Dexateens, the best and most criminally underappreciated garage band on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. But the band seems to have abdicated any claim they may have once had to the title of Tuscaloosa’s saviors. They haven’t released a full album since 2009 (just a far too brief EP, Sunsphere, in 2013) and since then have only played live sporadically. During the same period, key band members have begun focusing on other, higher profile projects.
Then again, there’s still hope. Teenage Hallelujah is indeed the Dexateens’ first album in seven years, and it’s essentially got all the elements the Dexateens of old once traded stock in so fluently—noisy-ass guitars, heartstring-tugging twang, prickly Southern liberalism. But the album may be too little, too late to allow the band to finally seize their moment. It’s an often terrific but disappointingly inconsistent effort that lacks the laser focus, visceral leanness and superlative melodicism of their previous two records, 2008’s Lost and Found and 2009’s Singlewide, two of the great unsung rock classics of the last decade. Basically, as good as it is to have the Dexateens back, Teenage Hallelujah is, quite unfortunately, unlikely to make Tuscaloosans shut the fuck up about the Crimson Tide anytime soon.
It sure starts off seeming like it might accomplish such a noble, lofty goal, however. One thing that’s always made the Dexateens great—which speaks especially to frontman Elliott McPherson’s versatility as a songwriter—is their ability to transition seamlessly between fast, bash-your-head-in punkishness, mid-tempo Southern rock bombast and tender, bare-bones country folk. And for its first six songs, Teenage Hallelujah is a compelling synthesis of all those elements, landing somewhere between the impeccably tight garage rock of Lost and Found and the intimate, pop-inflected acoustic focus of Singlewide. Absurdly overdriven fuzz guitars mask a sugary melody on “Boys with Knives” in a manner that’s almost disorienting at first, but gloriously cheeky once the force of the performance overrides the cognitive dissonance. It’s just as impressive that the band can turn on a dime from the crackling, abrasive two-minute title track, with its infectiously twiddly lead guitar line, straight into “Treat Me Right,” a warm, beautiful acoustic lament.
The album’s initial stretch also contains two pointedly political songs that ought to be considered companion pieces to fellow Alabama liberals Drive-By Truckers’ latest masterwork, American Band, and not just because the two bands now share a bass player in Matt Patton, he of the overgrown bowl cut, perennially gleeful countenance and deliciously fat, greasy low end. Continuing in the tradition of the Dexateens’ previous masterful indictments of Southern bigotry like “Take Me to the Speedway” and “Grandaddy’s Mouth,” the frantically chugging “Old Rebel,” with its screaming lead guitar and the stark “Alabama Redneck,” with its dripping, humid late summer atmosphere, sting harder and ring all the more true when delivered via McPherson’s pronounced Southern accent.
Teenage Hallelujah’s back half, on the other hand, sees the Dexateens veer a little too far out of their wheelhouse in spots. They’ve always been lo-fi and ramshackle to some degree, but on parts of this record they sound positively shambolic, thanks to either or both overly sloppy guitar playing (closer “Seen It All Like a Mountain,” for instance) or McPherson’s high, nervous whine sounding unpracticed and thus lacking some of its usual authoritativeness, which was already only present to a fairly dubious extent. The effect is that the album’s penultimate track, “Down in the Valley,” a swaggering Southern rock anthem featuring flashy, choreographed guitar leads and a huge call-and-response chorus, sounds so much tighter than the rest of the album that it feels almost out of place.
There’s also the fact that the band embarks on two or three half-cooked experiments—they might as easily be termed novelty songs—that don’t really land. Full of off-putting drug references and decidedly uncatchy riffs, the boogiefied meth cooking saga “Shake ‘n’ Bake Astrovan,” the punk pastiche “Eat Cornbread Raise Hell,” and especially the bizarre country funk “Jimmy Johns,” about a horny Crimson Tide running back turned coke dealer, just feel like pointless digressions from the Dexateens’ righteous path.