As far as ironic band names go, it’s never been clear whether Imperial Teen have spent the past 15 plus years looking to subvert expectations, or just purposely create them. I mean, it’s probably both. However, when a band is able to wield this sort of flashy/smooth blend of precious mentality and apt atmosphere, all sorts of dualities can be forgiven. They kind of have to be, or albums like their new LP Feel the Sound would just about collapse in on themselves; though, in fairness, it almost does.
The San Francisco based quartet has been playing this game since long before “retromania” permeated, and they became those cagey throwbacks. But, there’s always been a lot of consistency in their bobbing and weaving. Now, granted, while there’s a lot to be said about becoming too comfortable in a self-created role, there’s also a lot to be said about ultimately delivering the goods sonically. It’s here where some may take issue with these stalwarts regarding their latest dalliance.
Feel the Sound, the band’s fifth LP proper, presents Imperial Teen’s strength at making joyous, bright-spotted pop with a satirical bent and faintly punk ambience. Fearless leader Roddy Bottum (of Faith No More fame) acts not so much as a leader (actually) than as a wrangler of artists, as each player (Bottum, Stebbins, Schwartz, and Truell) has ample moments to showcase their talents. And, all in all, Feel the Sound is both a competent and richly layered exercise of said talents. The thing is, when you step back and take a look, it can admittedly come off a bit too much as just that: an exercise. However (!), any problems one may have with this being a little rote or long in the tooth can easily be assuaged by seriously large, equal helpings of the kind of excitement and shameful giddiness one gets from listening to the most infectious of infectious pop music. Yeah, it’s not earth shattering, or even brilliant, but I assure you that “competent” has never been so congratulatory.
The album sprightly begins with lead single “Runaway.” It’s catchy in the way you would expect, with a communal vocal that expresses equal parts jubilation and ceremony. And those keyboard hooks and 4/4 simplicity lay groundwork for the well-structured while lively aura that will flow and fluctuate all throughout the album. “Last to Know,” as well as the bouncy charms of tracks like “Hanging About,” and the bitter sweet “All the Same” run the gamut of pop playfulness, toying with muted emotion as much as they do earnest confession.
Moreover, there’s certainly fascination in the more sparse arrangements found in the back half of Feel the Sound. Third act pleaser “The Hibernates,” for instance, uses a silky vocal harmony to offset the negative space left by the droplets of sonic flash employed at rolling intervals much to the track’s transcendent benefit. While album closer “Overtaken,” with its exhausted and dreamy state of being, is packaged just right with all that tuneful howling and unrelenting snare taps atop the mellow and mournful keys.
Imperial Teen always tends to go to a place where their pop aversions can notably outshine their rock sensibilities. It’s a fine method that works for them in spades; but at this point, their general airiness calls their immediacy into question. That being said, Imperial Teen is clearly not at all interested in their preordained place in the world. Fusing that post-punk ambience of forbearers like Sonic Youth with a mostly delightful (and usually refreshing) twee bounce in the vein of, say, Yo La Tengo, they have spent a large number of years carving out a niche for themselves that was really already carved years before. But therein lies the most charming part of their passion, as well as the most frustrating part of their lack of vitality: Imperial Teen are fighting a war that is not only over, but one that never truly began.
And, on an album like Feel the Sound it is easy to find a lot of it pretty slight, or even “old hat.” You get the feeling that Imperial Teen can get so wrapped up in their own little world here, it’s like they might self-destruct; but, quite frankly, they’re too old for that shit, and they simply… don’t. This is the precious, hooky, jubilant music that they want to perform and will continue performing, (lack of) warts and all. Feel the Sound is not a classic, it’s not a masterpiece, and despite its pristine delivery, it’s not perfect. But it is an honest and genuine sampling of a band who continues to subvert expectations; even if they accomplish this by hard-headedly sticking to what they know.