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My late ‘90s crush on Imperial Teen’s Seasick involved vague, unconscious, pubescent desires, if any (I mostly remember digging the terrific melodic crunch of the music), but I imagine older fans, emboldened by the presence of two openly gay men in an indie rock band in 1996, were asking more specific, weighty questions, like: Who’s more boyfriendable, Will Schwartz or Roddy Bottum? Would one, if so able, choose the emotionally over-available but aggressively hard-to-get Will (“You’re not qualified, you’re not what I employ,” he screeches on “Water Boy”), or the more restrained Roddy, whose cool delivery perhaps concealed greater dangers (listen to the way he utters “take it like a man, boy” on “You’re One,” the greatest “accidental” collision of those two words since The Vaselines covered Divine)? Their romantic resumes came backed by the harmonies of Lynn Perko and Jone Stebbins, and the band has always excelled at collaborative vocal arrangements, but part of the fun of Seasick was tracking the differences in personality. Now the personalities have finally merged to become the Imperial Teen, who is now tasked with singing lead on its new album Feel The Sound. The vocal strategy is breathy full-band harmony, and even this only an element among the intoxicating, pulsing blend of keyboards and chiming guitars, rarely the main attraction.
There are exceptions, most notably penultimate track “It’s You,” on which Lynn, formerly the charming support, sings lead. Or is it Jone? (My not knowing must prove that the merger is incomplete and the male personalities still dominate, right?) Whoever it is, she sounds a little unaccustomed to the role, lending the track a level of Slumberland Records innocence, as if the Brilliant Colors girls dropped in to remind the band what relative lack of experience can lend, and it’s one place the album isn’t as strictly professional as majesty shredding (majesty buzzing?). And the men emerge as individuals here and there, Will on “All The Same,” singing in a more reserved manner that recalls Stars’ Torquil Campbell, and a seductive Roddy on “Hanging About,” where an echo effect on the vocal renders him subordinate to the arrangement, as if this is his contribution to the latest 6ths guest star extravaganza and Stephin Merritt is cruelly using the qualities of his voice to contribute to the overall effect of labyrinthine synths. So even in these starring roles the singers sacrifice idiosyncrasy for the advantage of the whole, which is the right move since the challenge here is total synthesis.
What is not to love, basically? Imperial Teen are the latest good will ambassadors (I’m sure there’s a Will Schwartz pun in there somewhere) for Merge Records, a label that has recently forgone signing challenging new artists in favor of releasing excellent rock music that celebrates the joy of making rock music, from people who know a lot about the subject, whose whole careers, in fact, could be said to have been working toward the harmony and clarity and pure fun of their latest music: Superchunk, Wild Flag. Remember “Romance,” the Wild Flag song that begins, “Hey, can you feel it, the way it sways you, the hum in your chest?” Feel The Sound works best when it’s channeling that feeling, when it’s about, whether explicitly or implicitly, the romance of rock ‘n’ roll. If it falters at all, it’s in “darker” moments like the relatively stormy “Over His Head.” Remember “Something Came Over Me,” the song that follows “Romance” on the Wild Flag album, opening with a dark guitar pattern that might only be the muscle memory of more desperate days? The song doesn’t fully convince until the band decides to “let the good times roll,” shedding that “something” like so much lightness. Feel The Sound, too, banishes whatever feeble thing is “over his head” by the time of the next song. Nothing’s really able to sit like a weight on music this assured and exuberant.
Imperial Teen access the sway and the hum with ease on Feel The Sound, whose title refers not to the tactile qualities of their music but to the philosophy that music is a feeling and the feeling is good, especially when it’s delivered by beautifully integrated pop music. Some will assume it’s always been this way, unaware of the bold sonic maneuvers that once compelled me to list 1998’s What Is Not To Love among my ten favorite albums of all time (I think, but the list is lost to time) and find Will’s search for quarters on “Hooray” as endless and epic as the worlds Kim Gordon suggested could be bought with them on “The Sprawl.” The album contained Sonic Youth noise ambitions, too. That’s gone now, but Feel The Sound finds a smart band combining and refining all that history into alternate universe radio hits, and even if it doesn’t sway and hum in me as meaningfully as their more fractured music, I can believe they’ve been striving upward toward this harmony. To employ a crass metaphor, you might even call it the musical equivalent of the It Gets Better campaign, a momentary endpoint in the long advance toward community.