When Merge Records celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009, which band do you think closed the fourth and final night of shows at Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Cat’s Cradle? It wasn’t Arcade Fire (they weren’t even there) or She & Him (they headlined a show on UNC’s campus the next night) or Conor Oberst or Superchunk of Spoon (the previous nights’ closers). Nope, in the end, the celebration at the classic indie rock venue from the classic indie rock label closed with an infectious set from Imperial Teen.
The band is both an obvious and strange choice, since Imperial Teen has a devoted but also decidedly limited fan base. But what makes them perfect is that they are exactly the kind of unpretentious power-pop group that represents what Merge Records is (and what modern pop music should be) all about. The set was a show-stopper, confirming that the direct, sweet power of their records comes on only stronger on the stage.
Now, two-plus years later, the band is back with their fifth full length (and third for Merge), Feel the Sound, and it continues their run of infectious and distinct pop tunes. The foursome, now together over 16 years, has always understood their strengths, but they have refined them over the course of their career. Following the graceful aging of 2007’s The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band, Feel the Sound is an unabashedly glossy and sleek pop record. The album opens with all four players — Roddy Bottum, Lynn Perko Truell, Will Schwartz, and Jone Stebbins — singing lead single “Runaway” in unison, and it’s a knockout punch right at the bell. It’s an early bid for Perfect Pop Song of 2012, with a hell of an earworm chorus and sweetly slick hooks throughout.
The soaring bridge of the song finds the players exclaiming “If I had my way, I’d make tomorrow today again,” which both winks at the ELO-nodding keys all over the record and really belies what Imperial Teen is about. This is not revivalist pop at all, even if you can hear late ’70s and early ’80s pop sounds on the light thump of “Last to Know” or the moody yet steady march of “Over His Head.” Despite having a foot in the past, this is timeless pop music that just happens to be rooted in that particular epoch of musical history. While all the upstarts (and too many around long enough to know better) spent 2011 trying to convince us we were into soft rock in the ’80s, Imperial Teen takes all the immediacy of similar pop sounds and gives them the blood-and-bone sound of live instrumentation. So even when they slow things down on the expansive closer “Overtaken”, things never lose the four piece’s indelible energy. Imperial Teen can glide along on slicks of pop bliss, but it never forgets to get your feet stomping at the same time.
Still, the sleekness of the production — this is far gauzier than the straight-ahead brilliance of On — can get in the way sometimes. “It’s You” stretches out too far on ringing chords that make the space around them feel thin rather than full and lush, while “Out From Inside” has an interesting interplay of warm keys and jagged guitar riffs, but neither side ends up asserting itself as the production sands down the edge on both. These moments, and a few others, are still solid pop tunes, but they feel held back by the controlled sheen of the production here. The last two records the band put out on Merge were clean sounding, to be sure, but they felt organic, with just a hint of ragged personality complicating the perfection of the hooks. Here, things get just slick enough in places that a set of what should be great songs get rendered only very good. Feel the Sound will get you to do what its title implores, especially on standouts like “Runaway” and “Last to Know,” but chances are it’ll be on the stage where these songs truly come to life.