Imperial Teen, the San Francisco-based indie pop band headed by Faith No More’s former keyboard player, Roddy Bottom, has always laced its catchy tunes with darkness. The band’s first CD, Seasick, was a tantalizing blend of pure sugary exuberance and slightly ominous undercurrents. It was gleefully omnisexual, with peppy male-led choruses of “Kiss him like a man, boy” and subversive cuts like “Copafeelia”. On, their last CD, had more keyboards, less bass, but still managed to twist cuts like “Ivanka” into something a little more dangerous than sheer pop. The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band feels several degrees lighter than On and a whole world away from Seasick‘s gender-challenging, razor-sharp endeavors. It’s good fun, but that’s all… and that’s disappointing coming from Imperial Teen.
There’s been a five-year hiatus between albums, and though details aren’t specific, there have clearly been some personal developments among the four principles. Someone’s had a baby for one thing, another possibly lost his hair, TV figures into it somehow, and there’s apparently another band. So, as a result, all the distractions that come with maturity intrude on this record. For instance, “Room with a View” talks about a friend undergoing plastic surgery and the need to “do our best to pretend we’ll be 20 for life”. There’s a kind of bittersweetness even in the most upbeat songs, the joy of continuing versus the inevitable sense of not-the-same-ness. Power pop must be one of the most difficult genres to maintain as you get older, because its energy and its subject matter are so tied to youth.
And yet, Imperial Teen manages to pull it off a couple of times, with bouncy, shout-along songs that fall just short of their best material. “Sweet Potato”, with its head-snapping beat and infectious call and response, is sheer good-natured fun in musical terms. Lyrically, it’s sly and clever, a female-centric narrative punctuated by zingers (“She’s got a backstage pass / But she don’t want to meet the band…. Sweet potato, oh! Sweet potato”). Album opener “Everything” is just about as good, with the same kind of staticky rhythms and side-grinning lyrics, and “Shim Sham” gasps and pants and burbles like a lost Go-Go’s cut. (Everybody get in the convertible!) Still none of these songs have the kick of “Teacher’s Pet” or “Water Boy”. They feel slightly slack, a little bit going-through-the-motions. It’d be fine from anybody else, but from Imperial Teen, we expect more.
As they’ve done in the past, Imperial Teen slips some slower, more ballady cuts in between the pop-rockers, and, in general, these seem even less compelling than the faster cuts. One exception is “21st Century”, whose gently stuttery guitar line gives spine to a melancholy consideration of the passage of time; that pensive verse explodes into a distorted, shout-sung chorus of “Countdown… Countdown…. to the 21st century”. It’s the kind of thing that would have gone down very well on mid-1990s MTV, alongside the Breeders and Belly, but as the song reminds us, we are a long way past all that.