Imperial Teen + Billy Bragg
CMJ Day 2: October 17, 2007
by Michael D. Ayers
A promotions company called Pirate hosted their day party at Arlene’s Grocery, home to “punk rock karaoke.” It was worth showing up early, as Merge old-schoolers Imperial Teen were starting around 1pm. Imperial Teen’s story has fascinated me this year: it’s been something like five years since they’ve had a record out, and in that time, they’ve done some major growing up, like having responsibilities and such, settling down, deciding what strollers handle the best in what weather conditions, etc.
They were never that big to begin with, so it’s interesting that they’d a) want to make another record, b) tour to support and c) care about such things like making another record and touring to support. They didn’t strike me as a typical indie band that got old, and now that “indie” is somewhat successful, it seems like a good time to try to cash
in. So in a lot of ways, from the press I’ve read and watching them play, they just enjoy music, and playing music. They know how to write a pop song and enjoy doing so.
They also looked exactly like what they’ve become: aged. But aging has a negative connotation, especially in a youth “what’s hot now” world, and especially in a “what’s the next hot shit” vibe of CMJ. But in Imperial Teen’s case, they’re accepting of it. Working it. Imperial Teen know they’re past the time when they’d be considered the next hot shit, and as a result, don’t really care about the bullshit. Example: after two
songs, the guitarist looked into the audience and called some dude out for sketching them, or possibly drawing caricatures. The band kinda laughed at the audience member, and in sort of a collective eye roll, continued on with their set.
Also furthering their acknowledgement that they could give a fuck about increasing any sort of status, they bore their new found woes on us, their real reasons for living, by asking some guy if their kids were still there. Lynn, the drummer, brought her child(s?) (I only noticed one), and it was his first rock show. I can’t remember if I’ve ever heard a band ask about the kids during a set.
So, all that said, Imperial Teen’s new music (at times) reflects their newfound duties, and it’s a bit weird hearing a band play (and look) old, and singing about things that a CMJ audience might not relate to, and if they do, surely don’t want to spend time in a dank hole such as Arlene’s, being reminded of being a parent, paying mortgages, and
cleaning out the garage. But all of this is what I found rather appealing about them, or at the very least, mildly charming. They’re still playing guitar heavy pop in the vein of Belly and the Breeders, the latter which they toured with five years ago. They still harmonize well and still have a wit about their lyrics that make for a fun,
A few minutes later, Billy Bragg plugged in for a rather lengthy set-clocking in at nearly forty minutes. He’s here plugging a forthcoming album on the Anti- label, as well as participating in some Woody Guthry tribute / benefit concert at Webster Hall. All and all, it was great to see him in such a small place, as it typically is with any major artist
playing in a tiny club. He played one of his good songs from the Billy Bragg and Wilco sessions, “Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key” – his voice throughout was spot-on, despite his insistence that he’s developed a cockney style of singing that he calls “Johnny Clash” (Johnny Cash meets, yep, The Clash).
Here’s what I noticed about Bragg. His British accent makes anything he says cooler sounding, and he does talk a lot in giving explanations about his career, his song meanings, etc. But unfortunately, his new tunes are treading that Steve Earle / Neil Young politico-territory, where the music is just fine, but the lyrics are treading in some serious levels of triteness. People that are going to listen to Bragg aren’t dumb, and probably already listen to a healthy amount of music. So it was a little disheartening to hear his new tune “Farmboy,” about a soldier who used to work on a farm, but now is in the war, and dreams of coming back home. Bragg can pull it off so it doesn’t seem so obvious-that British accent thing is a good distracter- but it just seemed so obvious. His other new tune “What Liberties Are Taken, By Thy Name,” was
a little better, but as the title suggests, it echoes a lot of what Farmboy’s sentiments did. Bragg of course has made a career out of politico type music, so really this shouldn’t be that big of a surprise to me- I just had wished the wording was a bit more clever, as I felt a guy of his stature is capable of. He seems like a very nice, funny guy
and treated his audience with respect; this of course sometimes doesn’t happen when you get guys who’ve been around the block, and are now playing a day party in some crap hole that hosts amateurs singing Bikini Kill songs every Monday night.