Faith No More keyboard mainstay Roddy Bottum and Lynn Perko, formerly the drummer in Sister Double Happiness (the disappointing emo-rock band led on and off by singer Gary Floyd and Perko since Texas’ punk-rocking Dicks split in the mid-’80s), are the prominent half of San Francisco’s Imperial Teen, a quartet which sounds nothing like their other bands. In this intimate, casual and engaging small- pop setting, Bottum plays guitar and sings; Perko drums, sings and spells Jone Stebbens (who was Perko’s bandmate in Reno’s Wrecks) on bass. Lest the catchy tunes and sweet, simple indie-styled arrangements (that occasionally blow up in brief punk storms) be taken too literally, this subversive bunch sets mildly provocative sexual lyrics to its inviting music. That makes Seasick (co-produced by Steven McDonald of Redd Kross) something of a disorienting ride: the easy appeal of “Imperial Teen,” “Butch” and “You’re One” is in no way impeded by passing references to cross-dressing, bondage and S&M, but they do alter the impression the songs leave behind. Near the end of the album, “Luxury” musters a Nirvana-like roar to deliver an angry critique that could be about Kurt and Courtney (who was actually an early member of Faith No More). That’s the thought that resonates when the music’s over.
With tales of transvestites, prostitution and violence framing the otherwise trouble-free bubblepunk, What Is Not to Love (co-produced by McDonald and Mark Freegard) is a similarly sordid affair. The songs are punchy yet thoughtful, linear but unafraid of flare-ups. Frequent allusions to the dark, excessive side of fame — especially the trappings of rock stardom — give otherwise unrelated tracks a cohesive, sometimes sinister edge. The cutie-pie coo of “Yoo Hoo,” “The Beginning” and “Year of the Tan” is inescapable, but the mantra-like repetition of the rhythm cloaks a strutting, sneering delinquent ready to grab your handbag and run. Co-vocalist Will Schwartz’s whiny, wound-up-tight tirades complement Bottum’s more breathy approach, while Stebbens’ and Perko’s little-girl backing adds an energizing Breeders-like air to “Lipstick” and “Seven.” When the songs aren’t about being “hooked on estrogen,” “fucking congressman” and the like, the minimalist poetic structures are baffling, but that only adds to the album’s deviousness.
Returning four years later with the considerably smoother On, the Teens go for a subtler synth-pop buzz. A new version of “Ivanka” (previously a vinyl-only single) and the hand-clap hoo-ha of “Baby” start things off splendidly — both songs are infectious to the point of absurdity — but things slow down from there. “Sugar” is as sweet and light as its title, “Our Time” is twee piano-led pop, and the smiley “City Song” comes off like a Lovin’ Spoonful for the new millennium. Production by McDonald and his wife, Anna Waronker (ex-that dog.), ups the new-wave ante with tons of clinky keyboards, less-is-more vocals and, in the case of the utterly delightful “Teacher’s Pet,” a Devo-like throb that blip- blips with the best of ’em. Aside from the line, “I’m only here to please / I’ll be on my knees” (from “Million $ Man”), even the lyrics take a leaner and cleaner direction, focusing more on choppy couplets that leave much to the imagination (if they can be deciphered at all). A couple tracks desperately need more hop in the pop, but On is still hard to turn off.
Live at Maxwell’s is an energetic Hoboken, NJ set from 2002 that leans heavily on songs from On but also features the group’s other tasty tidbits (“Balloon,” “Birthday Girl”).