Feel the Sound, Imperial Teen’s fifth long-player, is an agreeable piece of middle-of-the-road indie pop. Nothing more. And that ain’t a bad thing, necessarily.
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. Their fifth full-length, and first in five years, Feel the Sound is categorically a bubblegum pop album, which is a bit of a marked change from their last outing, 2007’s The Hair the TV the Baby and the Band, which was more a belly-gazing, "Hey, we’re all in our 40s now and we’re ironically called Imperial Teen!" kind of record. Feel the Sound, conversely, aspires to be nothing more than the kind of disc you can throw on in the background at a hip retro chic party and just awash yourself in with its bouncy keyboards - courtesy of Roddy Bottum, ex of Faith No More. In that sense, Feel the Sound is just another indie pop record, albeit not a bad one. Its mission statement is simply to have purchasers go out and have a good time with it. Sometimes you need that. However, if you’re looking for something deep and profound with Feel the Sound, you’re going to be disappointed. Merriweather Post Pavilion this ain’t. Again, not necessary a bad thing -- it’s just that there isn’t really a narrative arc to hold onto here.
In fact, the band pronounces this very fact on the very first track and lead-off single, "Runaway", in which all four band members (two guys, two girls) all share lead vocal duties. "So much for subtlety," it goes, and while the group also adds the line "make tomorrow today again" in "Runaway", the truth of the matter is that Imperial Teen is actually all about making yesterday today again. There’s a very ELO-styled Mellotron used in "Runaway" for starters, and, elsewhere on the album, the band is keen on reviving the sounds of ‘70s-styled German electronic rock. This is most notable on the fifth song "Hanging About", which travels along in a very straight line in a slick and well varnished sheen, the sort of thing that a car commercial would be filmed against. "No Matter What You Say" is a bright and punchy keyboard-led ditty that, too, would be the sort of thing that you can close your eyes to and see a bunch of Volkswagens zooming about to. While Bottum has scored some films in recent years, you get the idea from Feel the Sound that the group might be setting their sights on landing some TV work. Again, this is hardly a bad thing, but the band’s sterling ambition sort of hits you on the head with a very audible "bonk!".
When it comes down to brass tacks, Feel the Sound is a fairly solid album with foot-pleasing riffs and hooks (so, you know, that foot can happily tap along with the music), and it’s one that starts out good, then actually gets better and better as it goes along -- that stretch between "Over His Head" and "It’s You" is a particularly disarming one. However, Feel the Sound seems to be a little lacking in having one standout, knockout song that blows everything else away. That, though, might be a backhanded compliment, because that also means that the album is a pretty even-keeled and level one. Still, Feel the Sound does feel a little on the safe side, as though the band is afraid to branch out and really rock out. The album, then, becomes something of a pleasant listen: it is unassuming, uncontroversial, and utterly conventional in its retro-tinged sense of songsmithery. All in all, you can’t really complain, but if you’re looking for a bit of oomph! in the proceedings, you walk away a little empty-handed.
In fact, the group’s raison d’être appears to come on the song "It’s You": "All the cities and all we’re looking for / Tomorrow, there will be so, so, so many more." Feel the Sound, then, is all about expanding the fanbase, which, reiterated again, isn’t an egregious thing per se, when you’re squealing out songs as pleasing as to be found here. It’s just that you get the distinct impression that Feel the Sound is a bit of a disposable album: once you’ve played it a few times and burrow your way into its highway-baiting hymns, it’ll be just as easily forgotten about. Any opportunities for reflection largely escape the record, rendering it just a nice piece of muzak, an agreeable piece of middle-of-the-road indie pop. At the risk of repetition, that ain’t a horrible thing -- there’s a certain amount of giddy fun to be had, particularly on tracks like the girl-group infused "It’s You". And, yes, the repetition you see is actually the image of a music critic kind of wringing his hands over the merits of just being an ordinary outing, which Feel the Sound clearly and deftly aspires to -- making it a hard one to really get a gauge on. Do you praise it for succeeding at what it does do, or lament what it doesn’t? That’s the $64,000 question. I guess it all boils down to this: if you’re looking for some mindless fluff to have a good time with, there are certainly worse albums than this one. It’s just that there are better ones too, making Feel the Sound the soundtrack to a less discerning music listener who just likes candy floss, candy apples and little else that’s nourishing beyond that. And, sigh, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.