Teen Men's take on synth-pop isn't groundbreaking, but their strong command of melody makes the album fun and worthwhile.
Teen Men is a four-piece collective featuring musicians Nick Krill and Joe Hobson, who have musical day jobs as part of the Spinto Band, and visual artists Albert Virney and Catharine Maloney. Appropriately, their live shows apparently feature a synchronized-to-the-music video presentation that “provides an interactive platform for the band members and audience.” The band even takes care on their website to note that their YouTube videos are different from the interactive concert videos. This sounds like a very interesting concert experience, but in this review we’re limited to the recorded music. Fortunately, the recorded music of Teen Men’s self-titled debut album is quite good.
Opening song “Hiding Records (So Dangerous)” may be the most laid-back song to ever feature a constant cowbell beat. The track features a simple but catchy bass-and-piano riff, doubled on the high and low ends, as Krill sings in a charming falsetto. Underneath, lightly-picked electric guitar and synth washes fill out the sound, while the song’s skittering, uneven drums are made possible by the cowbell pulse keeping the beat. The song may lack the big hook that keeps it bouncing around in a listener’s head for days, but is a lovely piece of synthpop that is gorgeous to listen to in the moment.
A lot of the album is like this. Teen Men make highly appealing songs that lean heavily on melody, but the catchiest melodies are often assigned to the synths and guitars. “Adventure Kids” uses two interlocking guitar riffs as its hook while Krill’s lyrics tell a strong story and feature some very well placed, effective harmonies. But it’s the guitar lines that stick in the head after the song is done. “The Sea, the Sea” features more strong harmonies from Krill and Maloney and a good melodic refrain when Krill sings “It’s just a five day march / We’ll be forever repeating”. But the steel drum-style synth riff is the song’s real hook. “It’s All Rushing Back” rides a syncopated, easygoing tropical beat and cute synth riff through to a catchy guitar solo. The refrain, “Holding your breath / It’s all rushing back” is solid, but musically its effect is to be a temporary change of pace where the tropical beat stops.
When Krill does get to sing a big hook, the effect is memorable. “Fall Out a Tree” may be the album’s best song, simply because it does the best job of making the vocal hook equal to the instrumental melodies. The vocal melody in the verses is unusually strong, and it’s perfectly accompanied by a catchy piano figure. The slow chorus provides a contrast to the verses, and the Maloney-sung bridge provides a third strong vocal melody in the song. “Township (Not Sure)” opens with a great distorted synth intro, but lets Krill’s singing take center stage for the essentially the whole song. It’s a song that gets Teen Men dangerously close to rocking out, with actual distorted guitars. Closer “Kids Being Kids” once again puts Krill and Maloney together with a strong chorus, this time accompanying them with feather-light early-‘80s new wave synths and drums.
Regardless of whether the emphasis is on the vocals or the instruments, Teen Men certainly know their way around a melody. Their take on indie synth-pop isn’t exactly groundbreaking, as hints of everyone from the Postal Service to Vampire Weekend show up in their sound. But because they have such a strong command of melody that the whole album is a fun, worthwhile experience regardless of its familiarity. Not to mention that interactive live show, which one assumes is even more fun.