Imperial Teen: On

[8 May 2002]

By Carolyn Kellogg

Yowsa, a brand new record from Imperial Teen! Pop rock that’s not saccharine, their songs are sexy and confused, dizzy and danceable, sarcastic and joyous.

In surviving to release On, their third record, Imperial Teen may be the California condor of independent rocking pop. The addictive Seasick, released in 1996 when the band was just months old, stood apart from the top-volume guitar feedback that dominated clubs and college radio. Despite their original label (Slash!) being chewed up and spit out by not one but two bigger fish, they managed to stay together as a band and find a welcoming home at Merge Records. Heck, they even continued writing fun songs that are catchy as hell.

Imperial Teen are two smallish guys (Roddy Bottom and Will Schwartz) and two voluptuous girls (Lynn Perko and Jone Stebbins) that perform with a sassy confidence. Everybody sings, but mostly Roddy and Will trade off lead. The first time I saw them on stage, in the middle of the set they all traded instruments, much to everyone’s surprise—and then traded back a few songs later. They aren’t a band that sticks to traditional roles.

On is the kind of CD that revives that teenage desire to put posters of sweaty rock and roll singers up in your bedroom, close the door, and then kiss them all over. With that kind of heady enthusiasm and raging hormones, things sometimes get a little mixed up. And Imperial Teen play with that confusion without making an issue of it; they are more Village People than Phranc.

In “Our Time” Will breathlessly sings “All the girls are dressed in leather / And the boys are wearing feathers” over a thrilling rock arrangement and irresistible pop-pop backing vocals from the ladies. “You’re dating boys but have a girlfriend,” he croons in “My Spy”, a mellow track dominated by ‘80s keyboards that glides like a walk home with a new sweetheart after a long night of dancing.

It’s not so much about making a statement as it is about having a darn good time. Why else would the CD lead off with “Ivanka”, a tribute to the recent page six party girl? Here each band member sings a stanza, the doo-doo backing vocals keep coming, and there’s a gradual, tension-filled build to a walloping crescendo that leaves you panting but eager for more.

The more aggressive songs feature Roddy singing lead, with lyrics that can be sharp and pointed. In “Mr. and Mrs.” he describes a couple unflatteringly then gets to the chorus “These whom I speak of are my friends . . . can’t wait for their lives to begin / Oh so exciting then,” certainly not something you’d want to hear sung about yourself. Yet he also has a sense of play—in “Baby” he sings in pairs of almost nonsense words, and the band sings together “I love baby, Baby is a dog.”

When Will sings lead, the songs are gentler but just as much fun. In “Sugar” (which lives up to its title) he sings simply “And I wanna take you home / Cause I wanna take you back” and as a gentle tune rises around him, single bass and guitar lines lifted by increasingly insistent drums. His mumbling, sometimes breathy singing style is positively demure, and entirely charming.

The CD itself is charming. Tricks like hand-claps and the doo-wop vocals are worn-out staples of pop music, but anyone will fall for even the cheesiest line delivered right (if George Clooney asked me “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” I’d melt despite myself); here the background vocals make you want to sing along, and the handclaps drive you to get up and dance. Under it all the keyboards work like a guide, sometimes stiff as an ‘80s synth, others as woozy and swooping, and once a jaunty piano.

In On Pop and rock come together in a way that is just the most absolute fun. Imperial Teen is delightful with just enough bite; danceable without having to count beats per minute; ready to have as much fun as you are. In some oddly good way, Imperial Teen are stuck in adolescence. It’s enough to make you want to wear braces and kiss posters of Adam Ant when nobody is looking.

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