If it’s true, as was once asserted in no less esteemed a publication than the anarcho-queer zine Fag Rag, that “wit and irony provide the only reasonable modus operandi in the American Literalist Terror of Straight Reality,” then Seth “Hunx” Bogart may well be the most reasonable man in indie rock. Too Young to Be In Love is an arch and entertaining transposition of queercore’s snotty sexual politics onto a surprisingly sturdy amalgam of doo-wop, schmaltzy malt-shop rock, and Ramones-style punk. But where irony has become a watchword among hipsters and hipster-haters, describing the sensibility with which the deeply insecure attenuate their tastes, Hunx and His Punx exhibit a campy variant that’s more concerned with subverting the explicit meanings of their influences than with holding the audience at a distance. Or to put it more concisely, it’s gay irony, not hipster irony. It’s easy to imagine the adolescent Hunx listening to the oldies station and realizing that old love songs are so much sentimental heterosexual bullshit, but for that fact, not wishing any less fervently that there were one or two bullshit love songs by and about people like him.
Too Young to Be In Love opens with Hunx affecting his best crooner voice, asking, “Do you ever get the feeling that you want to hold me?” while the Punx “ooh-wah-ooh” behind him, but by the second line he’s already broken into a high-pitched whine: “Well, do it now! Because I want everyone to see!” Punchline delivered, Hunx continues singing in the same voice (earnestly, for what its worth), “I want to take you, take you way down to my favorite place in town,” at which point the girls come back in to deadpan a chorus that would sound totally plausible coming from the Crystals or the Ronnettes.
That first minute neatly encapsulates the album’s mode of attack, establishing that Hunx and His Punx relate to vintage pop as skilled imitators, wily deconstructionists, and earnest fans. On “Lover’s Lane,” Hunx’s exaggerated lisp is the only sign that the song is any kind of put-on; on the title track, the tell is a bratty plea for sex: “Why won’t you do it with me-ee?/I want to do it with you-oo.” Which is about as explicit as Hunx gets this time out: Instead of depending on vulgar sex talk to generate discord with the jukebox-pop surroundings, he simply takes the sexual yearning that always animated those puppy-love ditties and brings them center stage. In queering AM radio and early punk, Hunx seems to have struck on the revelation that you don’t even have to be gay to spend your youth as a bundle of nervous and poorly directed sexual energy. For that, being a teenager will do just fine.
Between the camping, the re-contextualizing, the endless musical cut-n’-paste, Hunx and His Punx throw up a lot of barriers between their listener and any kind of un-self-conscious appreciation of their songs. Obviously, that’s the point. But the songs are, for the most part, very sharp, and a good deal of the credit for that goes to the Punx. Hunx’s backing band provides the spot-on girl-group harmonies, plus each whatever-the-singular-of-a-Punx-is plays an instrument: bass, organ, drums, or guitar. In particular, bassist Shannon Shaw proves to be a powerhouse vocalist, carrying the standout “If You’re Not Here (I Don’t Know Where You Are)” with a raw, raspy turn at the mic. “Tonite Tonite” is the best of the album’s faster-paced songs, its punk and rockabilly guitar flourishes actually sounding rebellious against the well-coifed pop that surrounds it. And “Blow Me Away” brings the album to a close with a sincerely performed torch song for a suicidal father, rifling through the Phil Spector production playbook for tricks (reverb, organ solos, pounding toms) to make a small-voiced pipsqueak sound as big as the tragedy he’s singing about.
There’s dark humor to be found even there, which makes the song a fitting finale for this 30-minute tour through the pop daydreams of a smart-aleck survivor. Where too much of Too Young to Be In Love feels overthought and under-felt, like someone’s Media/Gender Studies thesis set to record, the best moments find Hunx and His Punx relating to their source material not as tropes, but as sources of power, even if it’s just the simple power to laugh and have a good time.