Matt on Music: Imperial Teen's 'Feel the Sound'

As somebody who loves indie music as pop, I appreciate tunesmith bands like Vampire Weekend, Spoon and The Hold Steady more than supposed musical innovators like Animal Collective and Sigur Ros. By this measure, Imperial Teen is one of the purest indie bands around, and also one of the best.

Led by Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum, Imperial Teen was formed in 1996. With Bottum on guitar and vocals, Will Schwartz on guitar and vocals, Lynn Truell on drums and backing vocals and Jone Stebbins on bass and backing vocals, the band released their debut album, “Seasick,” the same year they formed. The album was the first in a series of well-received albums. Their latest album, “Feel the Sound,” brings the number of solid Imperial Teen albums in a row to five. Some, however, claim the album is their first lackluster release.

When I first heard “Feel the Sound,” I wasn’t necessarily fit to judge it. I hadn’t listened to much of the band’s earlier work, but I loved the album. It was a tuneful album that housed the most enjoyable basic indie-pop I’d heard in a while. But actual Imperial Teen fans told me it wasn’t
special. Compared to the band’s earlier work, many said it was rather bland.

Now, months after first hearing the album, I’ve listened to the band’s entire discography. Their masterpiece is “On,” a wondrous work from 2002 that gets better with every replay. 2007’s “The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band” is melodic ear-candy that also tops “Feel the Sound.” At the same time, I like this album as much as I did the first time I heard it.

Perhaps the problem that fans have with “Feel the Sound” is the lack of homosexual subject matter. Bottum came out of the closet before forming the band and many of their songs have featured homosexual references. It’s become something of a trademark for the band, but “Feel the Sound” keeps them subtle. The most notable homosexual reference appears in the jangly “Last to Know,” which opens with the line “Pumped up pecs and sticky skin.” It might just be because I didn’t become a fan until after hearing the album, but this lack of homosexual references didn’t bother me. In fact, the tunes are so addictive that I doubt it would have bothered me if I’d first heard the album as an eager fan.

The songs on “Feel the Sound” cut less deep than Imperial Teen’s previous work. But all of the band’s albums seem unintentionally great, including the brilliant “On.” I feel a lot more comfortable with the less innovative melodies of “Feel the Sound” when it seems like the band was never trying to be great. The boy-girl harmonies the band is known for are still intact on “Feel the Sound,” and the band continues to show tremendous pop songcraft.

Pitchfork, who have never been willing to acclaim melodic bands that don’t go out of their way to seem innovative, gave “Feel the Sound” a 6.2 out of 10. They only gave “On” a 7.7 out of 10, so that’s expected. But music critic Robert Christgau, who has been an Imperial Teen supporter since they first formed, didn’t care for “Feel the Sound,” either. Critic Dan Weiss, who once called the group one of his favorite bands, expressed the same opinion.

I’m glad I got into the band late, because I love this album. “Over His Head,” “It’s You” and “Overtaken” are all playlist-worthy, and “Runaway” is as good an opener as “Ivanka.” Maybe I’ll consider their next album a dud while some young writer becomes a new fan because of it.

Key Tracks: “It’s You,” “The Hibernates,” “Last to Know” and “Runaway.”


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