Imperial Teen’s What is Not to Love

Even the worst movie of all time has at least one great moment. Midway through the teensploitation flick Trojan War (plot: boy spends 90 minutes trying to procure condom for sexual encounter with dreamgirl, ultimately discovers he loves Jennifer Love Hewitt instead), boy and dreamgirl are sprawled out on dreamgirl’s bed, headed to second base, when the soundtrack cuts in. The director of the film obviously thought that the song in question, “You’re One” by Imperial Teen, was a giddy bubblegum ode to teenage lust.

Which it is, until the bridge kicks in and ex-Faith No More keyboardist Randy Bottum sings “you take it like a man, boy.” By the end of the song, Bottum’s pleading to his lover “kiss me like a man, boy,” boy’s rushing out of dreamgirl’s room in search of a condom, and the film’s accidentally undermined its one-dimensional sexual politics with one of the catchiest – and cleverest – pop songs in recent memory.

The album that spawned “You’re One,” Imperial Teen’s 1996 debut Seasick, was universally lauded; while it was a fine slab of propulsive power pop, it had more weak moments than its supporters liked to admit. Much of its power came from its timeliness: less than three years after its release, Seasick seems only somewhat less artifact than the power pop flock – Weezer, Superdrag, Nada Surf – that it rose far above.

Which brings us to the oh-so-tricky sophomore album, What Is Not to Love. Nobody gave a damn about last year’s Superdrag and Nada Surf reduxes; what can Imperial Teen do to continue its relevance? To its credit, the band has found a surprising answer: don’t change much of anything.

What Is Not to Love doesn’t so much expand the group’s boundaries as it clarifies them: no other band that I can think of evokes so many recent alt-rock reference points. The crisp guitar and sexual ambiguity of Sonic Youth’s “Drunken Butterfly” and Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record. The male/female call-and-response vocals and soft/loud dynamics of Doolittle-era Pixies. The surf-inflected garage pop of the Breeders and Amps. The sly but frank references to homosexuality of the Magnetic Fields. There’s even a malaria / hysteria rhyme straight from Pavement’s Brighten the Corners. All of the T-Rex and Blondie comparisons that the band draws are red herrings: this is a thoroughly modern record. You can almost hear it striving for currentness.

Will this play three more years from now? I have no idea, but listening to the album it’s really difficult to care. What Is Not to Love doesn’t quite have any mindblowers on the level of “You’re One” or its only slightly less fab Seasick partner “Butch,” but it’s more consistently on target than the band’s previous effort. Opening with three excellent semi-rockers, slowing down to stretch out, tightening and contracting again, the album is so well-paced it almost feels lubricated.

Although Bottum and his songwriting partner Will Schwartz won’t surprise anyone with their incisive lyrics this time around, they haven’t let up one bit. Bottum has a truly impressive knack for crafting tossed-off vignettes with lines that seem simultaneously detached and desperately interested. “Birthday Girl” (“She goes to school in Washington/a major in self-portraiture/you meet her in a parking lot. . .and we should save ourselves!”) and “Lipstick” (“Why you gotta be so proud? I’m the one with lipstick on”) are the apexes. By turns matter-of-fact and evangelical, always ambivalent to the point of confusion: how better to explore issues of gender than to tug from opposite poles?

Shattuck writes the nastier stuff, probably because it’s well-fitted to his put-on dismissive sneer. On his great songs – the single “Yoo Hoo” (about a stalker – those cute kids!) and “Year of the Tan,” he groans what could otherwise be standard indie aphorisms (“Back to beatnik!,” “I gotta dance!”) with such obsessive lasciviousness that they become oddly appealing come-ons.

So maybe Trojan War’s director wasn’t so far off base after all. A band so self-aware it can sound salacious? Quite a trick, and a damn fine sounding one at that.

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