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Imperial Teen - Feel the Sound

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Artist: Imperial Teen

Album: Feel the Sound

Label: Merge

Review date: Jan. 27, 2012

The last time that Imperial Teen broke a five-year hiatus, with The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band in 2007, it was a bit of a letdown. The old peppy exuberance was stretched thin, the subject matter apologetically drawn from midlife. It sounded like the four principals had gotten distracted by the trappings of maturity and were unable to commit fully to the bubblegum joys of power pop. Sure, there were some good songs, some catchy boy-girl harmonies, some cheeky, in-your-face lines, but the album never caught fire. The band kept reminding listeners of all that had changed over the half decade, never really honing in on what had stayed the same: their fixation with the music.

With Feel the Sound, they’ve left the distractions behind. This fifth full-length, as the album title suggests, is all about the sound. Digging deep into the most elaborate power pop traditions – ELO and the Beach Boys seem like prime reference points – Imperial Teen crafts a super-clean, super-sharp, inordinately complex collection of songs that, nonetheless, go down like cherry cola.

When Imperial Teen started, in the mid-1990s, the band got a lot of attention for its forthrightly gay lyrics, which seemed political precisely because they were not especially political. Later, with The Hair etc. the band explored unfashionably middle-aged subject matter, not making a stand about it exactly, but just because that was on their minds. With Feel the Sound, though, the lyrics seem almost incidental, shards of imagery to take up space between joyful “whoa-ohs.” You might catch a reference to car seats or steroids or marital infidelity in “Last To Know,” but the song is about sensation, not story. Its real point is the way Imperial Teen sets up the song’s boxy, precise contours, then blows them to shreds. “Hold me up to the sound, and I’m not coming down,” bandleader Roddy Bottum sings in “No Matter What You Say,” and that obsession with pure tone, with music as music and nothing else, seems to be the main theme of this album.

Most of Feel the Sound‘s songs build on the same elements that Imperial Teen has always employed – straight-up, pounding drums, staccato keyboards, sugar-rush boy girl harmonies and a knife-edge balance of hard and soft. Yet in a couple of songs, Feel the Sound ventures a little further out onto the continuum, into multi-part, baroquely stylized cuts like “Runaway,” which recall ELO at its peak, or echoey, atmospheric songs like “Hanging About” and “Overtaken” that evoke Pet Sounds.

This latter cut, which closes the album, is fluid and lush and altogether beautiful, braced by hard drums but floating free into swirling, liquid harmonies and lavish piano runs. You could propose all kinds of meanings to this frankly gorgeous song – is it old age or death that’s “overtaking us”? – but I think it’s the love of music that’s caught up with Imperial Teen. With Feel the Sound, they’ve reminded themselves that whatever comes in between albums, it’s the way the songs sound that really matters.

By Jennifer Kelly

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