Release Date: Jan 31, 2012
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Punk-Pop
It's a good time to be Imperial Teen. The San Francisco quartet were squishing together hooks and drones before everyone had broadband, and now they've returned with their first album in five years, just as bands like Frankie Rose and Weekend are helping revive the sound of classic indie pop. Feel the Sound turns blipping guitars and synth riffs into roller-skate jams the whole band can harmonize over.
In just over 16 years of existence, Imperial Teen has lived the quintessential experience of the '90s indie band that's still kickin' around. Existing on the plane of acts that could have but didn't break through to mainstream success in the era of post-Nirvana alternative clamor, the Teens avoided a lot of drama and burnout, allowing them to grow the project sustainably. Eventually, the individual personal lives of the bandmembers took priority and the space between albums grew in years.
Imperial TeenFeel the Sound[Merge; 2012]By Daniel Rivera; January 30, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetAs 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.
When Merge Records celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009, which band do you think closed the fourth and final night of shows at Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Cat's Cradle? It wasn't Arcade Fire (they weren't even there) or She & Him (they headlined a show on UNC's campus the next night) or Conor Oberst or Superchunk of Spoon (the previous nights' closers). Nope, in the end, the celebration at the classic indie rock venue from the classic indie rock label closed with an infectious set from Imperial Teen. The band is both an obvious and strange choice, since Imperial Teen has a devoted but also decidedly limited fan base.
At this point, Imperial Teen's brand of sweet, boisterous pop has been confined to indie's fringes, but the band seems perfectly content to do its own thing in perpetuity and impervious to fashion. The time when Imperial Teen's music could have been considered sellable to America's radio suits, that late-1990s moment when alt-rock shrugged off grunge gloom for gloss and smiles, feels like it happened in another lifetime. As for all of the sounds that have come and gone in indie-land since-- from garage-rock revival to dance-punk to whatever the hell we're calling chillwave in the post-mortem period-- they might as well not have happened in Imperial Teen's world.
Stating that it’s harder than ever for bands to be heard is scarcely a revelation; there is more music available than ever before. And yet that also means there’s more disposable filler; when searching through so many artists all competing for attention, one thing is surely essential for those who break through: a cracking melody that won’t leave your brain for months. Imperial Teen have always been striving to write as many of these as possible.
Some indie rock bands want to make a serious artistic statement. Think Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, maybe Grizzly Bear, and the Antlers and go on from there. Then there are indie pop acts who just want to make something that’s fun and bubbly. Into that category you can throw Imperial Teen, originally based in San Francisco but whose members have spread out across the continental United States.
Even in their 16th year as a group, Imperial Teen continues to prove their staying power. Allowing lengthy periods to pass between releases, Feel the Sound is only the fifth album to join the foursome’s previously well received catalog. Even though five years have elapsed since their last release, this album emerges as some of their most memorable indie pop to date.
While I spent a hefty amount of time scrutinizing Feel The Sound, Imperial Teen’s first new album in five years, I also spent an equal amount of time searching for meaning. I had a vague recollection of this band when this album appeared. Since I hold a lot of value in the relationship between longevity and bands, and Imperial Teen has been around since the mid-90s, I felt the need to explore beyond the sound.
There’s something equally reassuring and disappointing in following the progression of a band who firmly refuses to make any meaningful changes to their songwriting. On one hand, it’s less uncomfortable for fans who first became attached to the music because of its specific components when those components never change; on the other, it can be increasingly frustrating to keep retreading familiar ground every time a band puts out a new record. Critically, there seem to be a few stages of this process.
Despite side projects and time apart (Will Schwartz's Hey Willpower, Roddy Bottum's film scores, etc.), Imperial Teen just can't quit us – or each other. From the opening Supertramp-y keyboard salvo on "Runaway" to the churning Velvets choogle and weird Carpenters vox on the road-tripping "Hanging About" and hand-clap delirium of "All the Same," they dip in the pop-rock pool and spread the bubbly referents in ways that may confound yet still engage kids. Having enjoyed cult status since forming over 15 years ago, the Bay Areans' staying power means their influence is catching up with them.
Here’s a fun fact, courtesy of Wikipedia, and familiar to those who are familiar with Imperial Teen: Roddy Bottum is the former keyboardist for Faith No More. Here’s another fact, less fun than the former: after listening to this album you will long for a little more of Faith No More. Feel the Sound isn’t a bad album, but it’s not a great album either, and the comparison to Faith No More is appropriate in this respect: while sometimes sonically clunky, Faith No More, especially on their great album Angel Dust, made you sit up and notice, or at least scratch your head a little puzzled (they did, after all, seem to invent the word “menstruating” in the song Midlife Crisis).
Fifteen years is a long time to sustain cult stardom in the digital age, but if Imperial Teen shed any hopes of a commercial breakthrough sometime before Al Gore ran for president, the climate has since changed in their favour. On What Is Not to Love (1999) and On (2002) they came off like a post-grunge Pet Shop Boys, an electronic lacquer gleaming on even the rockiest arrangement. Feel The Sound, their first album since 2007, boasts the kind of incremental shifts in emphasis that no one but fans will savour, but for sexually confused young people in search of a soundtrack, it will do.