Imperial Teen took their time making deceptively chipper music with lyrics that often provided a sour tang under the sweet surface. I was intrigued when back in 1996 the New Yorkerdescribed the band’s first LP, Seasick, as “queasy pop,” and despite the fact this is probably some of the sunniest music on my often gloomy shelf, the mature lyrics, intelligent themes and sophisticated wit all burnish their fourth studio record, released in the summer of 2007. The title accounts for what each of the four members did while the band was on hiatus. As on most of their albums, the 12 tracks start off in a Spectorish flourish but end with a downbeat, melancholy tune that takes them off stage gently.

The music lacks the experimental, even prog-rock-meets-post-punk, snarly and sinister edge from their second and least predictable 1988 album What Is Not to Love, and generally melds the straight-ahead but lower-key energy of Seasick with the glossy polish of the 2002 album On. But overall, it’s softer, lower in volume and more subdued. Newcomers might best start with On and Seasick; this fourth release matches these in aesthetics and approach, but again seems less jittery and less brazen.

The accessible, warm, affectionately old-school production by Steve McDonald (Redd Kross) and Anna Waronker (that.dog) along with the band, heightens the no-frills guitar-bass-drums set-up, but Roddy Bottum’s keyboards appear much less prominent than before. This is not quite a disappointment, but the band is better served by the higher intensity tunes that allow them to stretch out rather than compress their take on indie pop rooted in ‘60s moods without slavishly repeating the pre-psych, vaguely NYC-street styles that they blend into a new-wave meets singer-songwriter approach. A song like “Sweet Potato” shows this off best, with lines like “She has a backstage pass but doesn’t want to meet the band” and “The carpool lane’s open but she’s taking the bus” cleverly capturing a gal of easy virtue. Somewhere in our media empire this deserves to be a hit.

Will Schwartz, vocalist on most tracks, has improved and has lost the Jersey whine that often marred earlier turns at the mike. Lynn Truell’s drums keep punch with Jone Stebbins’ bass, and at their best, as in “Room with a View,” the tunes sound instantly familiar. It was a pleasant surprise to find this CD in a bargain bin, especially if you feared they’d disbanded. It’s good to see the band came back after five years off. One song, “Do It Better,” sounds like it might have come off an earlier Imperial Teen album, but while The Hair, etc lacks some invention on its slower songs, it makes up for it with pep on the faster ones. It’s a testimony to the band’s talent that they can freshen up pop-rock at this late stage in that la-la genre, and recall their influences without imitating them.

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