Forget talent, which is cheap no matter how many bands don’t have it. Imperial Teen always projected like a party because they were excited. Gay guys weren’t supposed to master Velvets strum-drone-noize, and back when they started, just as the alt bubble was bursting, two-guy-two-gal lineups still took some doing. Their Gestalt was absolutely fresh even if their songforms weren’t. But at the Bowery Ballroom last Monday, the fourth and final night of the New York stop of the Breeders tour they’re opening, Imperial Teen had long since proved what they had to prove. And left to fend for themselves, the songforms conquered all.
Even after fans know the tunes, which with Imperial Teen has always taken time and with a Breeders crowd couldn’t be assumed, pop is hard to bring alive. It doesn’t move enough. At the Bowery, Imperial Teen’s songs motorvated. One reason their melodies don’t connect right away and often remain as rudimentary as they are effective is their rhythm-wise reliance on repeated fragments, nonsense syllables, cute little popbursts. This is clear on the new On, which for variety (read: distance from strum-drone-noize) means to use simple keyb parts like guitar riffs and sometimes does the opposite.
Some say it’s been slightly but sadly downhill for Imperial Teen on the two albums that have followed at three-year intervals since 1996’s Seasick. But nobody minded when a set included two songs from Seasick, four from What Is Not to Love, and six from On, including the opener, the keyb-hooked “Our Time”—which claimed, if you could make out the words, “There’s still an underground/It’s our time.” Maybe, maybe not, and gosh—Imperial Teen aren’t teens just like Sonic Youth aren’t youths. Don’t matter. They know how to ask the musical question: What is not to play?