April 21, 2002

Imperial Teen "on"

Comebacks that are worthy of unglowing praise are few and far between. Normally, when one thinks of a comeback, they're usually prone to think of someone like Elvis or Frank Sinatra, whose bright careers had slumped terribly, and are revived on a wave of both inspiration and nostalga. Other comebacks stem from an artist or group returning after years of absence or uncomfortable silence--such as John Lennon's brief return shortly before his murder, or like Wire, a long-dormant beast whose return is quite welcome.

Over the past few years, the music industry has changed in a most unfortunate way. With an increasing focus on marketing towards already-successful trends in order to assure a fast buck, the idea of developing new, interesting, and original artists has become a naive concept. Bands who sign to major labels and who don't automatically register major sales, or whose sound doesn't click with the secretary of the assistant to the vice president's clerk, you know the one--she's 40, with a teenage daughter and thusly is seen as someone who "knows what the kids like" and thinks that the person who signed that band obviously couldn't understand that the kids won't like this band. It's because of this weird sense of motivation that a lot of new bands suffer. Records that are very good indeed never see the light of day, or are presssed up in such a small quantity that nobody ever gets to hear them.

Imperial Teen are one of those bands that suffered at the hands of an unsympathetic record label. Their debut album, Seasick, was a fresh, breezy breath of fresh new-wave pop air, full of more harmonies and hooks than you can shake a stick at. It was a lovely record that you couldn't help but love and enjoy. The follow up, What Is Not to Love was aptly titled, though a bit ironic, considering the indifference it met with, and the fact that the band was dropped not long after its release.

Now signed to Merge, Imperial Teen present us with a glorious new album, On. You know, as in "Spot On." On proves that Imperial Teen was far from giving up the ghost when dropped, and like their labelmates Spoon, the Teens prove that losing their label doth not mean that the band loses their quality. Like Spoon, Imperial Teen have produced the album of their career, and thanks be to Merge for recognizing an excellent record from an amazing band. Just don't call it a comeback.

To call Imperial Teen retro or new-wave would do a disservice to both the music and the band. With Will Schwartz's popstar singing, tempered with Roddy Bottum's musical genius and Jone and Lynn's harmonies, you might think you were listening to something straight out of 1985, without all of the cliches. They aren't trying to be anything other than themselves, and if it sounds retro to you, then so be it. While it is true that Roddy Bottum and Will Schwartz's hearts can be found in a new-wave disco, they certainly do not linger there for one moment. In fact, opening number "Ivanka" seems to take a page from the book of Unrest, with a dark musical beast riding underneath a facade of breathy boy-girl vocals and a driving beat.

From there, Imperial Teen turn on the charm, pick up the pace, and set out on a course of action that is best summed up in one word: FUN. The next 39 minutes of your life will be pleasant, to say the least. If, after hearing "Million $ Man," you don't feel sorry for their former label losing the feel-good hit of the season, then, my friend, you just aren't feeling. It's this album's classic Imperial Teen tune, up there with "You're One" and "Lipstick," and if you can't feel it, then, my friend, you simply can't feel. Don't be embarassed, though, if "Million $ Man" and On prompts you to dance around the apartment; every time I've heard it, I've indulged in some massive bedroom break-outs.

The only flaw with On, however, is more of an aesthetic one. While the band are relentless in providing non-stop uptempo pop, the album closes with two rather slow numbers. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, as the songs are both excellent, but it gives the feeling that the band, after pop-rocking out, has seemingly run out of gas, worn themselves down, and have tuckered out on the couch. Of course, after the previous ten songs of fast-paced, hyperactive pop, you'd probably be tired as well.On is a full-throttled joyride, if only you'll dare to take the trip. What is not to love, indeed!

--Joseph Kyle

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