Here’s sound advice: if you think the drum sound on TEEN’s In Limbo is too teeny, turn it up until the drums sound normal. You’ll then be subjected to almost an hour of ear-splitting psych-drone-space-rock, and at some point you may lose your tether to reality and start floating through a thick snarl of noise. That seems to be the goal of the Brooklyn quartet and their producer, Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember). The songs overflow with effects like synth ostinatos, found percussion, drum machines, and female vocal arrangements popping around like tennis balls on a parachute—or at least they would overflow, if all the effects weren’t crammed into such a dense volume range. But ratchet up the volume and the whole thing makes sense. Consider that ringing in your ears a souvenir.
Opening song “Better” puts the density to good use. It opens with heavy tom-tom pounding, a tambourine, and constant piano eighth notes—sort of a groovy nod to Terry Riley’s minimalist classic “In C”. Then the synths kick in, deep and rumbling followed by high and magisterial, and somewhere in between those two registers Teeny Lieberson starts to sing her song. Lieberson, formerly of indie rockers Here We Go Magic, has a clear and unaffected voice with a slight New Yawk edge. When she sings, “I’ll do it better, I’ll do it better, I’ll do it better than anybody else HA!”, she could be a street punk on a basketball court. As the song escalates, all this other stuff just keeps entering—especially vocals from Lieberson’s sisters Lizzie and Katherine and their friend Jane Herships. By song’s end all TEEN’s decibels feel really oppressive, until you wanna escape this confined space you’re sharing with Teeny the braggart. If the fadeout comes as a relief, that’s no knock on this enjoyable, painful song.
Although they’re four women who sing, TEEN rarely sound like ‘60s girl groups (or, for that matter, ‘90s femme punk bands). Their lyrics are too abstract, their melodies too austere, for the Shirelles. But they use those clear chiming voices to play off their claustrophobic instrumental clamor. Much like scuzzrock duo Suicide, only without that whole dark night of the soul shtick, TEEN eke out the mind-warping implications of classic rock ‘n’ roll. In closing song “Fire”, the women set a complex vocal arrangement over a “Be My Baby” beat and rumbling Link Wray guitar; their two repeating chords give the voices a framework to ping and “whoo whoo!” against.
TEEN fills In Limbo with an array of such stuff, a new noise around every corner. Lead single “Electric” strings one syncopated hook after another, complete with steampunk sound fx and a big old walloping synth solo at the end. Even when they slow things down, as on the drumless title song, those madrigal popcorn voices keep things interesting. And on the woozy “Huh”, Lieberson slips an octave and a half into her upper register and reveals a gorgeous voice, powerful and unafraid of opulence. The one bum track is the straightforward rock ballad “Charlie”, which doesn’t play to the strengths of heavy-handed drummer Katherine Lieberson. At over six minutes, the band seems to journey to “Charlie”’s kitchen-sink climax in heavy steel shoes. When TEEN hits on a groove, though—which happens most of the time—their music compels you right along. You might even enjoy listening with the volume down.