It’s hard to hold restlessness and impermanence against a band named TEEN. Last heard on 2013’s Carolina EP, TEEN was leaning heavily on kraut and psyche influences, their instrumental motorik paired nicely with frontwoman Teeny Lieberson’s melismatic polyphony. Returning with a full-length less than one year later, TEEN now present themselves as a dub- and Afrobeat-influenced prog-R&B thing. Maybe “thing” is too derisive a term, but despite The Way and Color’s many admirable qualities, there’s also a disappointing slackness to the endeavor that undermines the band’s considerable ambitions.
In TEEN’s defense, The Way and Color’s IMAX-scaled aspect ratio is undeniably impressive. Even its most hastily assembled songs — “Reconsider” and “Toi Toi Toi,” for example — benefit from a masterful grasp of depth of aural field. Replete with horn blasts, hi-hat, and hand-clap syncopation, Boshra AlSaadi’s lascivious basslines, screwed and chopped counter melodies, and Lizzie Lieberman’s Keith Emerson-style organ spaceouts, The Way and Color demands your attention, all the while failing to reward it.
At several points, most notably on “Sticky,” “Not For Long,” and “All The Same,” TEEN sound like the school cafeteria orange drink dilution of Erykah Badu’s 100% freshly squeezed juice. There’s a superficial overlap between The Way and Color and Badu’s Return of the Ankh, but the comparison is overwhelmingly unflattering and, to be fair, probably uncharitable on this writer’s part. For the first three songs, it seems like TEEN are going to nail the translation. “Rose 4 You” is zany, bright, terse, and punky; “Not For Long” is tender and tangible, even if its melancholy lyrics skew soupy; and “Tied Up Tied Down” is transporting, propulsive, and deeply felt. Nothing that follows quite lives up to the potential set up early in the album.
The Way and Color ends with the sound of a polite round of applause. A mild sense of self-congratulation permeates the record, as if the attempt to synthesize several disparate elements together is somehow as admirable as that synthesis itself. Who knows, maybe it is. TEEN come so close to achieving liftoff that it’s hard to begrudge them for being pleased with their progressive space goddess accoutrement. This configuration suits them at least as well as their last arrangement, but both nevertheless suffer from the same haphazardry. Still, lateral lateral development is development, and TEEN are clearly still growing. The Way and Color offers enough reasons to keep rooting for them, to hope that they pull it together tighter the next time around.