(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #86 – released August 21, 2007)
Track listing: Everything / Do It Better / Shim Sham / Baby and The Band / One Two / Room With A View / It’s Now / Fallen Idol / Sweet Potato / Everyone Wants To Know / 21st Century / What You Do
Although better known than Eric Matthews or Tompaulin, Imperial Teen are easily one of the more obscure artists appearing in this project. Most famous for sharing a member of platinum-selling metal/rap weirdos Faith No More (keyboardist Roddy Bottum, who primarily plays guitar and sings here) and finding one of their songs, “The First” unexpectedly pop up in a Pizzeria Uno commercial (of all places) a few years back, this boy-girl-boy-girl quartet made five albums between 1996 and 2012; all of ‘em were admired by critics and all sold diddly squat (the first two even coming out on a Major Label.)
Initially a scrappy post-grunge, pop-punk outfit (with greater emphasis on the pop part), the band was arguably more recognized at first for its openly gay members (Bottum had memorably come out on MTV a few years earlier) than its music, even if “You’re One”, a song about Kurt Cobain from their debut Seasick briefly snuck on to some alt-rock radio playlists. By their third album On (2002), they’d evolve into a tight power-pop combo, flush with miniature masterpieces like “Ivanka” where their melodic prowess, rhythmic attack and interlocking vocals all coalesce into a whole that thrillingly builds like the band is careening forever closer to the edge of a cliff without falling off.
I got to know Imperial Teen through their fourth album, The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band; its title cheekily refers to what each member had been up to in the five years since On. Respectively, bassist Jone Stebbins found side work as a hair stylist, Bottum scored the short-lived ABC series Help Me Help You, drummer Lynn Truell was currently an expectant mother and guitarist/vocalist Will Schwartz had his own musical side project, hey willpower. One suspects Schwartz might’ve also been the driving force for getting Imperial Teen back together, as he sings lead on all but three of the record’s dozen tracks.
It’s likely I would’ve become a fan had I heard any of the band’s previous albums first, but I consider myself lucky that I came on board here—The Hair… could be one of the all-time hookiest albums I’ve heard, packed front to back with nothing but clever, concise and supremely catchy tunes. Call them a queer, co-ed, semi-acoustic Ramones, but even that description would obscure the complexities in their countermelodies and overlapping vocal harmonies.
Opener “Everything”, a thrillingly sped-up take on “Be My Baby” grandeur carefully crafts a mini-wall-of-sound without a hint of Spector-ish pretentiousness—it gleefully employs cymbal crashes, a one-two-three-four! count-off, a heart-stopping chord change at its middle-eight and rhymes such as “democracy” with “hypocrisy”. It sets the stage for a slew of likeminded ravers: “Shim Sham” (with lead vocals from Truell), which emulates the trash-culture party aesthetic of early B-52’s (albeit with very different vocalists); “One Two”, a call-and-response shout-out that chugs along rapidly without seeming to ever break a sweat; “21st Century”, teeming with ecstatic cries of “Count! Down!” and angular guitar stabs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sleater-Kinney song.
My favorite of these scrappier garage-rock numbers is “Sweet Potato”, where a lovably stoopid, nay, remedial guitar riff and matching beat backs up one killer lyric after another: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’,”; “Got a backstage pass but she doesn’t want to meet the band,”; “The carpool lane is open but she’s takin’ the bus.” Each one is followed by the song’s title, but the chorus is arguably even better: “Anyone, anywhere, anyway, LET’S GO!,” repeated over and over, not holding any hidden meaning but immensely enjoyable just for the sheer fun of it.
Fortunately, Imperial Teen are as effective when they cut their pop-punk with more varied, dynamic sounds and tones. “Do It Better” retains the brisk pace and fervent passion of their rowdier stuff, but deepens and agreeably softens things a little with its omnipresent flute-like keyboard and excessively melodic guitar riffs. “It’s Now” utilizes that tried-and-true soft-verse-then-loud-chorus construction but does so expertly whether you prefer their primal exclamations of “It’s NOWWW! It’s NOWWW!” or that moment where they rhyme “ceiling” with “Darjeeling”. “Everyone Wants To Know” goes the mid-tempo-with-power-chords route but keeps it lively with no lack of melody or lovely harmonies. “Fallen Idol” even takes a stab at loungey piano pop reminiscent of early ’70s Todd Rundgren with its major-7th chords, oompah rhythm and da-da-da’s (while still managing to sneak in a cheeky “Unabomber/Dahmer” rhyme.)
As proficient they are at creating great characters like “Sweet Potato”, Imperial Teen’s best songs often concern nothing so lofty as themselves, and, in particular, the plight of indie-rockers approaching middle age. The album’s title track (shortened to just “Baby and the Band”) could double as a band theme song as if they were to star in their own sitcom or Saturday morning cartoon; indeed, Bottum’s lead vocal, far more gentle than Schwartz’s, could almost be peak-period Donovan. A stop-and-start rhythm adds a little spice to the track’s affably bubblegum melody, while its lyrics are full of irresistible wordplay (“The wheels will turn / The top will spin / for me / for she / for her/ for him,”) and disarmingly clever rhymes with the song’s title, such as “Eight hands pound on the Concert Grand,” or “Fresh fruit’s best when it’s ripe and canned.”
“Room With A View” is just as catchy but cuts a little deeper. “We are working so hard / and we’re betting the farm / Charge it all to the card / Seventh time is the charm,” Schwartz trills in the first verse and, whether strictly autobiographical or not, you can’t help but want to believe he’s singing about his band. In the second verse, he almost wistfully adds, “Do our best to pretend / we’ll be twenty for life,” and the phrase hits like a dagger. Meanwhile, the Vince Guaraldi-esque piano lead is as charming as the one Belle and Sebastian built “Seeing Other People” around, while the rest of the band’s backing vocals (especially in the extended breakdown before the final chorus) serve as a reminder that they’re all in this together with Schwartz. “Room With A View” sounds like a lament that’s also a manifesto of sorts, acknowledging the passage of time (“We no longer smash guitars”) but also accepting it gracefully, particularly in the chorus: “And now / all we got left is a room / I didn’t mean to assume / we got the room with a view.”
As is their wont, Imperial Teen returned another five years later with their fifth album, Feel The Sound (whose title comes from The Hair’s… delicate Bottum-sung, closing ballad “What You Do”.) With production much fuller and airier than any of their previous work, it was thoughtful and mature, but not nearly as much fun (apart from “Out From Inside”, which could’ve been lifted off an old Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? episode.) At this writing, their website hasn’t been updated in four years, so they haven’t officially broken up. Still, given their track record, it would not surprise me to hear about a new Imperial Teen record tomorrow. Even if they have long since ceased smashing their guitars, I’d still be curious to hear how middle age is treating them.
Up next: Still a Weirdo.
“Room With A View”:
“Baby and The Band”: