How cool is it that Mark Robinson started Teenbeat Records by issuing cassettes of his band, Unrest, while attending high school in Arlington, VA? That both Unrest and the Teenbeat label expanded and became more than just obscure creative outlets for an enthusiastic teenager in the mid-80s is quite a joyful occurrence — it’s as if the Zit Remedy band of Degrassi High actually grew up to be cool musicians, and all their school-related negligence was justified by releasing quirky pop records.
Unrest’s records in the 80s were very scattered, even schizophrenic — Malcolm X Park (1988), for example, would shift with volatile abandon between the excitable guitar pop the band would later be most recognized for (e.g., “Christina”), fractured post-punk, jokes, acoustic strummers, and even rockabilly. This restless (and frankly, messy) style was gradually streamlined into a deceptively lean, remarkably hooky approach. By 1993’s Perfect Teeth, Robinson and co. were basically pop machines, pumping out energetic guitar-pop anthems for the indie crowd one after another. It’s 1992’s Imperial f.f.r.r., generally recognized as Unrest’s first cohesive pop album, however, that turns twenty this year.
Imperial f.f.r.r.’s 1-2-3 run of “Suki,” “Imperial,” and “I Do Believe You Are Blushing” is a nigh-perfect encapsulation of what I find so appealing about ‘90s guitar-based indie pop. These three songs are each wholly distinctive, with Robinson’s joyously expressive vocals and trademark guitar strumming on “Suki,” the fragile-yet-beautiful (and surprisingly stark, especially given its track placement so early in the album) “Imperial,” and the merger of bouncy instrumentation and vocal echoes of “Blushing.” Still, Unrest hadn’t smoothed out completely. As an album, Imperial still sprawls and is tough to pin down, but still shows how the band’s creative impulses were refined. Instead of jokey hard rock or garage clatter, the songs of Imperial become looser, more prone to hiccupping repetitions and decidedly un-pop digressions. It’s also worth noting the new presence of Ex-Velocity Girl bassist Bridgett Cross, especially on “June,” where she takes lead vocal duties.
Imperial f.f.r.r. isn’t free of faults (“Champion Nines” is a throwaway early 90s sampler transition), and many of its relatively skeletal songs could presumably fall flat in the hands of other musicians. Regardless, the album stands as a distinctive and, despite its status as one of the more iconic records in the Teenbeat catalogue, overlooked documents of vaguely grunge-era indie pop. To be more specific than “you mean records from real early in the 90s, right?”— it’s deceptively rich pop that’s often as winkingly self-aware as moments of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless; i.e., it’s educated and dissatisfied yet retains a sense of humour (the album is abbreviated for Full Frequency Range Recording). However, just before one might think of sifting Unrest off to the postmodern slacker bin, know that the album also contains the acoustic ballad “Isabel,” a moment of spacious pop vulnerability. This band has range.
Let me suggest that Imperial f.f.r.r. captures the shift of a creative band leaving behind restless irony for pop-weirdo assuredness. While admittedly of-its-time musically, when compared now to another new generation of self-aware, pop-culture archivist musicians, the album recalls the image of a creative enthusiast able to temper their own knowledge, excitement, and self-awareness into a confident album-long statement.