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Record Review: Imperial Teen

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The return of one of alt-rock's most durable bands.

Though they never scaled the same heights as such mid-'90s alt-rock compatriots as Nirvana, Hole, Beck, or PJ Harvey, the San Francisco quartet Imperial Teen — at the time, poppier and more cosmopolitan than most of their cohort — has proven to be one of the most durable and enjoyable bands of that milieu, even if their consistently fine albums are, understandably, coming at longer intervals now.

The band — two gay men (their sexuality a not-incidental part of the bio, especially on the debut) and two women, all of whom play and sing with the communal balance that nearly always codes utopian — has long specialized in a kind of disciplined exuberance. They're art-pop formalists, using traditional Velvet Underground/new wave/garage rock means to undergird a handcrafted matrix of hooks and harmonies that typically manage to be at once precise and playful. And these hopped-up, insistently danceable tunes and Marco Polo vocal interplay between men (keyboardist/guitarists Roddy Bottum and Will Schwartz) and women (bassist Jone Stebbins and drummer Lynn Perko Truell) are roughed up with just enough sandpaper noise.

Some of the band's albums are rooted chiefly in this pure pleasurability, such as 1999's What Is Not to Love and 2002's On. Others are marked by a more palpable sense of purpose, such as 1996's pointedly post-Kurt-Cobain debut, Seasick, their most rock record and one keyed to such instructive quotables as "peace, love, and empathy" and "our subtext is our plot" and 2007's The Hair, The TV, The Baby, and The Band, which emerged after a five-year absence that could easily have been a permanent vacation for a reckoning with their music "career" as only a component of full, complicated adult lives.

As the title indicates, the new Feel the Sound is more rooted in form than content, but it proves there's life for the band beyond the reckoning; that, like sonic youths before them, there may be life for imperial teens in indie-rock middle age.

The album opens with the surging lead single "Runaway," which layers all four voices into one over a spinning-top rhythm. But for the most part, Feel the Sound tones down guitar and emphasizes keyboards en route to a dreamier, less spiky version of the Imperial Teen sound. And where The Hair, The TV, The Baby, and The Band evoked the practice space as tree house and doted on a memory of touring, Feel the Sound doesn't touch on the rock life. Instead, the four members seem to be pushing each other through the exhausting haze of everyday adulthood, as on the yearning, wistful "All the Same," where they muse on "what's been lost and what's been done" or the highlight, "It's Our Time," which leads off: "Getting to you seems impossible/Who, who is the busiest one of us all/Too many songs we sang are left unsung/Another dream unwritten/The record's done."

Grade: A-

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