The Feelies – Here Before
The Feelies are a remarkable band. Words such as seminal, singular and legendary, so often PR-driven misnomers, all truly apply. The Feelies first came to prominence in 1980, with the release of the classic Crazy Rhythms. Crazy Rhythms sounded like nothing else at the time, save for a passing resemblance to the Talking Heads and perhaps DEVO.
Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, then and now the band’s core partnership, captured the urban twitch and thrust of punk music and locked it in their suburban basement, imbuing it with a very different sort of neurosis, more caffeine than speed. Coupled with kitchen-sink percussion – the titular ‘crazy rhythms’ – and layers of sugar-rush guitars, The Feelies took the lingua franca of punk and from it adapted their own musical dialect, geek rock, college rock, et cetera. Whatever it was called, it was a remarkable distillation of the everyday concerns of a pair of misfits, at once timeless and timely, that resonates even now.
And then they broke up. Or rather, they went on an indefinite hiatus. Or, they had a musical open marriage, recording and playing in new bands with new members, old members, different instruments, et cetera. The Trypes, Yung Wu and The Willies were amongst the pseudo-Feelies projects of this time.
Eventually The Feelies name was revived, with Mercer and Million leading a new line-up into the studio at the behest of REM’s Peter Buck, a huge fan of the band. Judging by the resulting album, The Good Earth, the feeling was mutual. Gone was the agitated yelping and spiky guitars, replaced by sedate mumbling and acoustic instrumentation. This pastoral turn continued through 1988’s well-regarded Only Life, and 1991’s not-so-well-regarded Time For A Witness, which heralded another break-up/hiatus. Though solid albums, it is understood that when to say you are a Feelies fan is to say you are a _Crazy Rhythms- fan. The Good Earth/Only Life phase is regarded as something different. Not bad, but certainly not inspiring the same sort of cult following.
With all of this in mind, many questions surrounded the reunion release Here Before. Firstly, is it as crap as most reunion albums? Secondly, which Feelies will turn up? Well, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Here Before is not a Stooges-esque train wreck, neither a cash-in nor a needless re-tread of the glory days. As for which Feelies to expect? Expect the latter-era, pastoral variety. No crazy rhythms here, folks.
This is not unexpected, and really, it’s fair enough. Contented fiftysomethings should not be expected to summon the spirit of youthful angst; it is usually an unpleasant experience for all concerned. On Here Before, The Feelies act their age; providing comfortable, worn-in arrangements for the largely reflective songs that make up the album. An appropriately weary air hangs over the album, and Glenn Mercer’s voice has a warmth that adds gravitas to songs such as opener Nobody Knows and Morning Comes, elevating them from sentimental to wistful. This is actually an improvement on the 1986-1992 model, which, without the energy of the Crazy Rhythms line-up to compensate, betrayed the occasionally naïve songwriting of Mercer and Million. Now, as then, the tension between Million’s jangling acoustic guitars and Mercer’s stinging lead guitar is at the core of the Feelies sound. However, where lyrics once felt like afterthoughts, a reluctant bowing to convention, here they are sung with something like conviction.
However, the album is far from perfect. Produced by notorious control freaks Mercer and Million, theirs is an anti-production job, with absolutely no sonic variation from track to track. Guitars sound like guitars, drums like drums. There is no colour or texture, no variation. This problem is exacerbated by the monochrome arrangements. The formula runs thus: A song begins, everyone plays, then the song ends. Initially refreshing, the unobtrusive instrumentation starts to take on an alarming karaoke feel by the end of the album. The overall impression is of impatience, of a production duo itching to play, rather than twiddle knobs
Luckily for the listener though, they really can play. Predictable instrumentation notwithstanding, The Feelies have a gift for propulsion and dynamics, and they send their songs up, down, up, up, and always forward toward climax. Time Is Right demonstrates this best, starting strongly, before running away to its conclusion with a hot-wired Mercer lead, like a twitchy, cardigan-wearing steam train. Here Before is a very good album, and much better than anyone had the right to expect from a reunion album. With a more patient and imaginative knob-twiddler, it might have been better still.