Jonathan looks at me sincerely, waiting for my answer. A friend's band will be opening for Imperial Teen, and we talk about how much we each love Imperial Teen, and we both have their record that came out earlier this year, and now I've told him I've got this new live CD to review. Jonathan has asked if he should buy it. And I'm stuck. I smile and nod vaguely, as if I haven't quite heard him, and head to the kitchen for a beer.
A day later, I've figured out an answer for Jonathan: if you don't have every Imperial Teen CD, this is a great one to get. If you do own their first three releases, you should buy this CD for one of two reasons.
1. You are a completist, and not having every Imperial Teen record will drive you bonkers.
2. You fell off a curb outside a London pub and broke your foot, or have a new baby, or have to be presentable at work very early very often, or live in a lovely remote part of Idaho; in other words, you don't get out to shows much.
Because this is a very good live record, honestly recording Imperial Teen's great live show. Yet it just falls short of being a great live record, the must-have kind of CD. It will probably be most appreciated by those who miss the edge and thrill of a live grown-up pop rock show.
The performance is sold from beginning to end. The boys and girls of Imperial Teen (Roddy and Will, Jone and Lynn) are vivacious, sing on key, play together well, and get in a few comments from the stage. The songs are absolutely recognizable but deliciously messier and, somehow, louder than on their studio CDs. The audience's applause fades in without being allowed to intrude on the songs themselves.
The 13-song set features terrific renditions of songs from the entirety of the band's career: "You're One", "Ivanka", "The Beginning". It's hard to choose, but the standout for me is probably "Yoo-Hoo." First appearing on 1999's What Is Not to Love, this song has always been frustrating: it's a blast live, but kind of dried out and flattened on record. Here, it has the bounce and that was missing from the earlier CD. All the tracks are exactly what you'd hope for -- they are the wild-eyed, breathless cousins of the songs that appear on the band's three studio CDs.
So what exactly is the problem? For starters, every track that appears here already can be found elsewhere in the Imperial Teen catalog. Six songs are from On, four from What Is Not to Love, and three from their 1996 debut Seasick. The CD would be more special if it had a track you couldn't find anywhere else -- an Imperial Teen-ized cover of anything would be great, or something not yet recorded. So if you already have all three Imperial Teen CDs, and you've seen the band play live, nothing here will surprise you.
Then there's the liveliness of this live record. While bringing energy and fuzzy guitars to their songs, the band sticks closely to the studio versions. If you're hoping for an improvised keyboard solo, a new medley or an upside-down reworking of an early track, this is not the record for you. And while pop songs need to be tight to hold together (no one expects Imperial Teen to play the Bonnaroo music festival), a little improvisation or experimentation is what makes a live record worth picking up.
Finally, this record cheats a little. Audience cheers break off as a new song starts in a way that implies that we aren't hearing the complete set. Chummy with-the-band liner notes describe what the members wear onto the stage, but everyone is dressed in something else in all the photos. Sure, they were recorded live at Maxwell's in New Jersey, but they were photographed at an undisclosed location. It's trying so hard to be real that where it's fake, it jars.
Yet none of these complaints is particularly meaningful. Imperial Teen plays a fantastic show, and Live at Maxwell's captures that. It will make a rock party come alive in your living room.