Los Angeles noise-synth-pop-etc quintet Ima Robot demonstrate an important lesson on the art of being a willfully bizarre band: You can’t be only half-assedly weird. Of course, it’s only when Ima Robot break this rule on their self-titled debut LP that the rule is most obvious. Fortunately, on most of Ima Robot the band—lead singer Alex Ebert, keyboardist Oligee (Oliver Goldstein), guitarist Timmy the Terror (Tim Anderson), bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and drummer Joey Waronker—dive headfirst into Devo-influenced synth pop songs about diverse topics such as explosive love (“Dynomite”), New Math (“12=3”), New Spelling (“Philosophofee”) and why you should buy their album before the apocalypse (“Here Come the Bombs”). But—and here’s where the trouble with Ima Robot arises—the band sometimes forgets how off-the-wall they’re supposed to be. After all, they traffic in a genre not especially known for its subtleties. It’s perhaps an unfair charge. Other similar-sounding acts (Hot Hot Heat?) don’t face such accusations, but Ima Robot’s “weird” songs are markedly better than their straightforward songs. Even so, the end product is an enjoyable, though not enduring, debut offering.
When Ima Robot are firing on all cylinders, they whip up a frenzy of keyboard bleeps ‘n’ bloops, meaty guitar riffs and big funky bass; it boils down to infectious, fancy-pants garage rock. Also working in Ima Robot’s favor is the fact that the rhythm section of Meldal-Johnsen and Waronker are studio pros who spent much of the ‘90s backing up Beck. As left-of-center L.A. rock pedigrees go, Ima Robot’s is better than most (if not all). And while it’d be a stretch to call lead singer Ebert the heart of Ima Robot, he’s certainly the twitchy nerve center. The ex-rapper (!) yelps, howls and otherwise vocally pinballs himself through Ima Robot‘s dozen tunes. It’s Ebert’s energy that wills to succeed, and when he slows down for tracks like the overly-sincere “Alive” or the piano-led “Scream”, the whole album starts to sag. Sincerity is anathema to what Ima Robot does best, namely frothy, utterly disposable synth. Ima Robot‘s lesser tracks call to mind the inexplicable ‘80s videos VH1 Classic plays during their afternoon Request Hour program; there’s a bad “who greenlit this?” vibe to them.
Did I mention the weird songs are the best? I believe I might have, and those songs also double as Ima Robot‘s most nihilistic tracks. “A is for Action” promises “We’re all gonna fry together” while Ebert literally spells out D-E-A-T-H. “Here Comes the Bombs” is pure black humor schtick; it amounts to a commercial urging listeners to buy Ima Robot before falling bombs kill them. It’s agit-rock with a Devo-jones, and while it’s truly annoying (Ebert abandons singing in favor of screeching, matching the noise coming out of the instruments) and borders on unlistenable, “Here Comes the Bombs” is what Ima Robot do best. And yes, that’s a compliment. Less grating, but equally bleak, is album closer “What Are Me Made From”. An operatic, existential crisis with an ethereal guitar plucked straight from outer space, “What Are We Made From” finds Ebert wondering if we’re all not “Just dust from the earth / And some heavenly puke for the glue”.
For their moments of anguish, Ima Robot would rather have you dance around (doing the Robot?) than don a beret and black turtleneck and suck down clove cigarettes. If “What Are Me Made From” is a little too bleak for your taste, there’s the bonus track “Black Jettas”, which answers the question, “What if Camper Van Beethoven and Devo joined forces?” Ebert, backed by Timmy the Terror’s greasy guitar, comes to the realization that all his ex-girlfriends drive the titular car in question . . . and it freaks him out!
Come end of the year, Ima Robot will be lumped in with the likes of the Electric Six, the Fever, and a handful of other bands who did their part to color the garage rock boom with sleaze, glam, keyboards and an off-kilter sense of humor before disappearing back into the mist. Weirdness, even well done weirdness, flashes of which Ima Robot show (and leave one wanting more), isn’t enough to put the band over the top.