I’m not even sure how to start this one. The fact that the Feelies have an album of new material after 20 years of virtual silence should be enough in and of itself.
Is it any good? Of course it is. Yeah, but is it really great? OF COURSE IT IS!!!
During their initial late 70s to early 90s run, The Feelies were always rather sporadic as a recording unit, and more active playing live shows in New York and New Jersey under sundry variations like Yung Wu or the Trypes or the Willies, and then later on as Wake Ooloo. But in 1980, as the Feelies themselves, they released the seminal, one of a kind and instantly lovable Crazy Rhythms (recorded while still in high school) and then were silent for a full six years. The influence of this album alone to college rock and indie pop cannot but overstated, so much so that REM’s Peter Buck jumped at the opportunity to produce their 1986 follow up, The Good Earth. And the next several years would be the most prolific for the Feelies, with two more albums, 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time for a Witness.
Each new offering showed a progression of style while still maintaining a classic and essential Feelies sound that was somewhere along the lines of Velvet Underground meets the Byrds with, early on, a little youthful angst to keep things jitterbug jumpin’. (Honestly, like REM’s Murmur, the Cure’s Disintegration or Stone Roses’ debut, some albums just are, existing to be marveled at but never duplicated.) After 1991, that was pretty much it. Despite loads of critical praise and a decently prominent spot in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, widespread commercial success continued to elude the Feelies, and they maintained nothing more than a local celebrity status, or at best a select national cult following amongst like musicians or just music lovers “in the know”…something that has continued to the present day. My understanding is that Bill Million just picked up and moved to Florida without telling anyone until he’d already gotten there. Take that, rock stardom. After that, Wake Ooloo sorta took the helm for folks looking for a Feelies-related fix, with three highly underappreciated albums, which itself ended somewhere in the 90s. So, aside from the MUCH needed reissues of Crazy Rhythms, the Good Earth and Only Life from a couple of years ago, there wasn’t much to keep folks satiated until Glenn Mercer’s solo debut in 2007, Wheels in Motion, a much praised, worthy and overlooked release in and of itself.
So a few weeks back my buddy Bill sent me a link that talked about the new Feelies album, Here Before…coming out that day!! WTF??? I’d had no idea, which is typical of me. But Bill hadn’t heard either, and usually he’s pretty well in the know, so I don’t feel too bad.
This is the “classic” line up of the Feelies, the five piece that recorded their last three albums (if not the “iconic” four piece set up of Crazy Rhythms), which of course means that Glenn Mercer and Bill Million are present on guitar, vocal, writing and production duties. It honestly couldn’t go any other way.
I’ve had Here Before in nearly continuous spin these days. From sound, to style, to production, to songwriting, it could have easily come out as a precursor to the Good Earth, as a follow up to Only Life, or as reunion/comeback in 2001. The signature Feelies sound is immediate, warm, inviting and familiar, and just like the rest of their albums, sounds timeless and yet contemporarily relevant. The well-meshed guitars are all there, the frenetic, intertwined solos, the understated lead vocals, the classic “Ooooooh…Aaaaaah…” backing vocals, the propulsive rhythm section, and the overall cohesive yet relaxed unit of song that is such enjoyable listening, it’s almost ridiculous.
On an album full of so many highlights, it’s hard to single out one or two, and favorite songs honestly seem to change with each listen as I catch little runs and nuances here and there and say “Ah, that’s the stuff...” But for past catalog familiarity, I immediately lean towards The Good Earth, as most songs contain that laid back, almost Western feel, but the heavier crunch from Time for a Witness pops up frequently, a bit of the trippy atmospherics from Only Life and one solo, for Time is Right, seems to be a direct homage to Loveless Love off of Crazy Rhythms. Still, there’s nothing formulaic going on, with plenty of new vibes to keep the classic sound spreading ever outward.
Lyrically The Feelies often seemed more interested in words to carry the melody than making any grand statements on love, life or what have you (a big exception might be Crazy Rhythms), and this remains the case now. While the opening track, Nobody Knows, seems to allude to people wondering will they or won’t they ever get back together again, most of the songs seem to tackle the ins and outs of life with an apt simplicity, though a theme of positive motion and/or moving on seems to be prevalent. These guys are all on or around the 50 mark, so the release of frustration and anxiety (which was often more implied in the past) is gone, so now it’s just good times, good vibes and, most importantly, good music.
Here Before, as a title, is purposeful, as the album essentially showcases what the Feelies have done and can still do, past, present and future, and I hope this time they stick around for awhile. (I’m not holding my breath.)