The Ataris: heartache in memoryville

Ruined old house

Record: Hang Your Head In Hope (Acoustic) (2011)

Hollow children, sputtering out
From birth until failure, we march on forever
We are only as strong as the mark we left behind…

from the song, “12.15.10,” on “Hang Your Head In Hope,” by The Ataris
Kristopher Roe, frontman of The Ataris

Kris Roe performing at an acoustic session at Groezrock, 2013 (photo by Achim Raschka, Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25799366)

The record “Hang Your Head In Hope,” by The Ataris, (Kung Fu Records/Cleopatra Records, 2011/2019), is a perfect record from a band that has, over almost 25 years as a band, created many memorable records, and who continue to do so even as touring remains on hold. Not an easy time for a road-dog touring band better suited to cheap hotels and bar stages than the captivity of “live streaming” kennels during a time of pandemic.

Of course, such a claim can be dismissed as purely a personal opinion, and rightly so. It is. It’s a subjective claim, easily both proven or disproven by whatever evidence can be marshaled for the task. There are literally thousands — tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands — of perfect records. Still, there is much to praise about this record, even as it’s now almost ten years old. It should be taken seriously, even carefully studied, by anyone interested in roots rock and garage rock. It’s a timeless American original.

“Hang Your Head In Hope” is a whirlwind of 14 one-take songs performed by Kristopher Roe, the smoldering songwriting heart of The Ataris, alone with his 1948 Gibson J-48 — no edits, no over dubs, and no net. Captured on retro recording equipment also from the 1940s, the result is a raw, powerful record that floats free from its time, presenting eight songs that can easily be added to any playlist and listened to hundreds of times, with each play opening each song into greater meaning — the recording artist traveling farther away from safety into uncertainty as his lyrics bite hard from song to song. Even the remaining six tracks, while perhaps not perfect, slipstream their heartache into the whole, in a naked honesty that in itself is touching and universal. Every perfect record needs a few flaws to sharpen its brightest edges.

Available on Bandcamp

The Ataris Hang Your Head In Hope LP artwork.

Hang Your Head In Hope (2011)

Track 1: 12.15.10
Track 2: Can’t Hardly Wait
Track 3: My Hotel Year
Track 4: How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Track 5: The Graveyard of the Atlantic
Track 6: Your Boyfriend Sucks
Track 7: Eight of Nine
Track 8: Broken Promise Ring
Track 9: The Hero Dies In This One
Track 10: All Souls’ Day
Track 11: In This Diary
Track 12: Skulls
Track 13: Unopened Letter to the World
Track 14: San Dimas

The Ataris

There’s an intimacy to these ragged songs, like letters written to Roe’s future self as warnings, while simultaneously searching his past for all the places where he lost parts of himself along the road. Taken together, these 14 songs are a bonfire of passion, memory, heartache, and loss. From the opening track, “12.15.10,” dedicated to Roe’s great grandmother, to the final track, “San Dimas,” Roe uses memories to both set these songs on fire as much as he uses them to stop time in brutal self-examination. This is where this record’s perfection begins, and what makes this a timeless collection. Rather than hiding pain behind beautiful or purely nostalgic images, Roe strips much of the sentimentality away in an almost punk fashion, revealing through his howl just how hard it is to live an examined life. Even more painful, Roe writes and sings his fearless confessions and shares everything without hiding.

The first five songs: “12.15.10,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “My Hotel Year,” “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” and “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” set a blistering narrative pace, crossing landscapes of anguish, fatality, and loss — the fatal flaw of doubling down in life as a tactic to overcome rejection, that ultimately time will have its way with all of us, regardless of how much “perfect planning” we put into building the regret-free life. Are any of us content with the lives we’ve created?

“Can’t Hardly Wait” is, of course, a cover of a Paul Westerberg/The Replacements song (one of two covers on this record, the other being “Skulls,” written by Glenn Danzig/Misfits). Cover songs can be the best places to search for clues to the perfect record. The best songwriters and performers use covers as a means of demonstrating depth and versatility, as well as shining light on their feeling and interpretation brought to their own work. They simultaneously make the cover work harder than, perhaps, it did for its creator by sharpening the song’s focus. Roe folds these two punk tracks into his own ragged acoustic aesthetic, allowing them to flow easily into his style, as well as revealing the punk DNA within Roe himself. The Ataris might brand themselves as “Honest Rock n’ Roll,” but the rocket fuel that drives most of their records is the same fuel that drives the best punk.

Some of the songs on “Hang Your Head In Hope” appear on other Ataris records. Roe is a prolific songwriter and an artist who enjoys sharing his demos as much as his studio-polished final results, along with live shows, mixing and matching collections, each a collage intended to widen his emotional reach while in parallel allowing us to observe his creative process. Who can resist the demo or alternative version of a favorite song? If you love songwriting, you love the journey a song takes from rough draft to “finished darling.”

While the phrase “Kill your darlings” might be a thought attributed to the literary giant William Faulkner and has become a mainstay of every entry-level writing course and unsure new writer, it’s actually a bad idea. The killing part. Once dead, we can’t see how the process works. What goes wrong in a song is as important as what goes right. The “darlings” reveal our humanity and our doubt. In the “memoryville” created by Roe and his band from record to record, rather than killing off versions of songs in their various packaged incarnations, we’re treated to a feast of demos, alternative takes, live versions, and studio extensions, each of which takes us deeper into the creation of the perfect record.

It’s worth noting, given the importance of this record in this band’s arc of creativity, that while the Band’s Bandcamp page lists the blue-vinyl version of “Hang Your Head In Hope” is sold out, copies can still be had from Cleopatra Records in L.A. That’s where I found mine. It remains in regular rotation at The Palace. Every perfect record gets better with every play. “Hang Your Head In Hope” holds up to road-tested scrutiny. Its perfection continues to open even as the years grind down our faith in our memories, in our tarnished dreams from youth, and our sadly naive hope that we’ll have enough time to do all we want to do.

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Desert House” / by Ken Treloar on Unsplash
“Old Cottage” (footer) / by Sheldon Currington on Shutterstock

Old farm house