On “Sticky,” the fourth track of TEEN’s The Way and Color, lead singer and former Here We Go Magic keyboardist Teeny Lieberson puts her own spin on an old theme: Songs about unplanned young motherhood. Unlike the protagonists of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child” and Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” Lieberson’s lyrics are both clear-eyed and vague: She thoroughly comprehends that she’s unprepared to responsibly raise a child, yet it’s unclear from the lyrics whether she chooses abortion or gives up the newborn for adoption. That ambiguity circumvents morality to focus the song on impressions, emotions and internal dialogue as she weighs what could be against what she resolves must be: “I am aware of how your breath/ It would feel on my neck…I can hear your cry even though you are no longer inside,” she laments as she and her band spin an intimate art-rock interpretation of soul slow jams that, like those lyrics, are far more intimate and feminized than the usual indie appropriation of R&B.
Born in Halifax and now based in Brooklyn, multi-instrumentalist Teeny, keyboardist Lizzie and drummer Katherine Lieberson are all sisters, and here they accentuate their resemblance to one another through intricate vocals that juxtapose staccato call-and-response interaction with lush harmonies. Although their riffs still bear a hint of the shape-shifting psychedelia of their earlier work, the Liebersons pull back so that their leaner arrangements and sparing harmonies hit harder. The open space provides ample room for sharp new bassist Boshra AlSaadi to prove she can groove.
What puts the record over, though, is how this transformation complements Lieberson coming into her own as a songwriter who’s both elliptical and candid just like her band’s gently challenging arrangements. Their vocals may be sunny and harmonious, but the album deals almost exclusively with discord: “I’ve been struggling with the same problems for years,” she admits at the start of “Not for Long,” but this time she’s taking them straight on, even as the music keeps spinning destabilizing twists, like this woozy song’s fluctuating time signatures. “Save yourself before you need to be saved,” she goes on to tell herself. The Way and Color proves throughout that Lieberson now follows her own advice.