For every generation, the same musical question always pops up, and we are left scratching our heads: what happens when pop artists age? Sometimes, as in the case of the Beatles, they shed their poppy roots with the aid of some hallucinogenics, and completely redefine their sound. In the case of Imperial Teen, they get older and write more pop songs about being old.
To be fair, Imperial Teen was never exactly a name known to all the young folks in the 90s, when they released their first album. They did, however, manage to craft a pop sound with songs that made it into teen movies and were staples on another 90s institution, MTV’s 120 Minutes. As a group, they’ve been known more for their previous projects, such as Faith No More and Sister Double Happiness, as well as current side projects (Will Schwartz’s hey willpower). The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band (Merge) is their first album in 5 years, and while the composition of the songs shows a great deal of range, there’s the pervading feeling that some indie label executive shrink-wrapped the band back in the previous decade.
The first track, “Everything”, sets an unusual tone for an album from an older group that was still young when they initially used the word “Teen” in their name. It begins with crashing symbols and tambourines, followed by a staccato piano melody that immediately calls to mind the days of doo-wop. The song has a catchiness that isn’t surprising, given its roots in a genre known for infectious melodies, but it also feels like the sonic equivalent of watching your parents trying to dance at a party. They’re trying real hard to prove they’ve still got it, but the attempt itself demonstrates that they’re working with outdated materials.
At other points throughout the album, the songs take on a little less silliness, and begin to sound more along the lines of Belle and Sebastian or Ben Folds (“What You Do”). When IT rocks out, especially on tracks like “Shim Sham” and “21st Century”, they sound more like The Breeders and The Rentals. It is a testament to their musical range, but one’s also left wondering if Imperial Teen is identifying their sound or just relying on established motifs.
While some of the album seems to have nothing of any importance to say, the predominant topics of many of the songs are the personal journeys of the band since their last album. The album title, as well as the song “Baby and the Band”, which is really just an abbreviated version of the chorus, which is in fact the entire album title, refers to what the band has been up to during their hiatus. I could go into what each band member has been doing, but to be honest, I think they’re the only ones who really care. It’s easily their most self-involved track, a forced conceit that tries to capture 5 years of life and marry it to a jingle. They refer to “waking up in a foreign land”, as though they are just as surprised as we are to learn that they have come so far from where they’ve started. People feel this all the time, but the shallowness with which they treat this particular phenomenon, the disconnect one feels between two watermarks in life, serves only to keep them immersed in their world. In contrast, “Room With a View” is a much more mature and complex song, with more to offer than the chorus of “ah”s that it features. The same feelings of fleeting youth are discussed, but as the refrain points out, there is a difference between their assumptions about aging when they were younger and what they’ve actually found to be true. It’s when the songs are almost exclusively about their apparent fall from the public consciousness (“Fallen Idol”) that you want to sit them down and tell them how little you care. There’s a difference between writing what you know and being so self-centered that you think an entire album addressing what you’ve been up to for the past few years has any relevance to an audience that is composed of more than just band members and their immediate family and friends.
Nearly all of the songs on The Hair, the TV have the sort of infectiousness that will get listeners to walk around humming the tunes to themselves. Unfortunately, these same tunes can be compared unflatteringly with those from musicals, and even the most contagious infections don’t have a lot of staying power by themselves. - Eric Silver