There’s something equally reassuring and disappointing in following the progression of a band who firmly refuses to make any meaningful changes to their songwriting. On one hand, it’s less uncomfortable for fans who first became attached to the music because of its specific components when those components never change; on the other, it can be increasingly frustrating to keep retreading familiar ground every time a band puts out a new record.
Critically, there seem to be a few stages of this process. There is, of course, the initial success of a particular style or sound. Next, the very similar follow-up, which alleviates fears of a slump. Eventually those alleviated fears turn into bemused exclamations every few years when there’s a new release: “Whoa, these guys are still doing the same thing, huh?” After an extended period, this confused exasperation can turn into grudging acceptance: “Well, at least I always know what to expect.”
I’m by no means the first person to make a comment on this phenomenon, but the best example I can think of personally is Built to Spill. After putting out classic and career-defining records with Perfect From Now On and Keep it Like a Secret, Doug Martsch and company have largely leaned back on their laurels for the intervening decade-and-a-half or so. They tour occasionally, put on consistently solid shows, and their dependably satisfying output (You in Reverse and There Is No Enemy) has all the comfort and familiarity of your favorite tattered old t-shirt: nothing to get excited about, but it’s nice to know it’ll always be there for you.
Imperial Teen share this commitment to aesthetic immobility. Album after album since 1996, they’ve churned out unrelentingly sugary power-pop anthems with 60s garage-rock-inspired hooks and boy-girl vocal harmonies. This formula met with moderate commercial success on their earlier singles. “Yoo Hoo,” from 1998’s What Is Not To Love, earned a spot on the soundtrack for the film Jawbreaker and a tie-in music video featuring Rose McGowan dancing provocatively in a skin-tight leotard. “Ivanka,” from 2002’s On, was prominently used in the film Thirteen.
The first few minutes of Feel the Sound’s opener “Runaway” reveal largely the same songwriting palette: jangly guitars, playful verses, sing-song choruses, male/female vocals forcing through every possible bright harmony. But one noticeable addition this time around is the inclusion of grand, overbearing synthesizers. The reverb-washed, wailing synth pad sounds punctuate melodies and slowly trail off at the ends of measures, creating the feeling of dreamy, open-ended expansiveness.
In fact, the sound of Feel the Sound is the most impressive thing about it. The slick production, shimmering synthesizers, and effects-treated vocals give the record a modern, full sound. The band was clearly going for something symphonic here, because the sonic separation between the keys, guitars, drums, and vocals does create a massive tone that permeates the tracks. Unfortunately, a successful production job is only as effective as the songs it’s molded around, and it’s here that Feel the Sound stumbles.
Although the energy behind “Runaway” was encouraging, most of the songs either drone on with forced, unsatisfying positivity or simply languish in melodic ideas that never quite land. “Last to Know” dwells on an ultra-twee march rhythm that’s ultimately simply annoying. Similarly, “Over His Head” tries reproducing the kind of static drumbeat and lonesome keyboard reminiscent of a 1980s sports car commercial, but with mostly boring results. The album’s closer, “Overtaken,” takes a gigantic swing at forcing a climactic and meaningful emotional moment, but it’s a swing and miss.
Worse still are some of the lyrical choices. There’s so much effects manipulation on the vocals that most lyrics tend to be mercifully obscured beyond all recognition. Many lines that are audible sound like adolescently romantic first drafts. Some choice duds appear on “Last To Know” (“A festival of paper shreds/ A bed for two is not a bed”), “All the Same” (“You’re so safe you’re in my mind/ Fall for only half the time,” repeated ad nauseam), and “Don’t Know How You Do It” (“Is it all in my head?/ Is it something that I said?/ Are these feathers meant for down?/ Are these letters meant for noun?”). They’re vaguely indicative of warm emotions, but delve so often into nonsense that they sound like filler lyrics written off-the-cuff to provide vocal patterns for demo tracks. It seems no one got around to changing them, unfortunately. At their best, they’re not very inspiring. At their worst, they’re simply idiotic.
The closest Imperial Teen get to having their synth-tinged sound work in an interesting way is the pleasantly driving “Hanging About,” which manages to put the seeming army of keyboard patches the band has at their disposal to decently compelling use. They’re still most successful when they stick to the basics, like the simple but effective “It’s You,” which features infectious guitar hooks that sound like they could be artifacts of Imperial Teen’s earlier, more inspiring work. But none of these small successes are enough to save this album.
It’s clear the band spent a lot of time jamming studio-produced keys into these songs in an effort to breathe new life into their very old and very unchanged songwriting formula. But the formula remained the same, and after all these years it’s getting diminishing returns. Inflating the songs with synthesizers feels like slathering cheap, sugary icing on stale cake. In Imperial Teen’s case, the cake underneath was only moderately tasty to begin with.
Built to Spill feels like a comfortable old t-shirt because the tropes they recycle are ultimately endearing and satisfying. In contrast, Imperial Teen sound here like they’re trying to squeeze some new flavor out of a chewed-up piece of gum.