Album review: The Feelies, "Here Before" (Bar None)

April 9, 2011

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Yes, the return of a beloved band from the indie-rock ’80s invariably is greeted with a measure of joy, in part because we never thought we’d have the chance to see it again, and in part because of the opportunity to right the injustice that so many of the groups that built the infrastructure and aesthetics for the alternative-rock explosion of the’90s—the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Mission of Burma, the Pixies, et. al.—never got to reap any of its rewards.

To be sure, no one was happier than yours truly about the reemergence of the Feelies, masters of those crazy rhythms and progenitors of the Strokes, among many others, after a break of some two decades. (Here is the feature I wrote before the group’s 2009 show at Millennium Park; here’s my review of that amazing evening, and here are links to stream or download the band’s appearance on “Sound Opinions,” chatting and performing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., at a special friends-and-family-only warm-gig preceding their official comeback at Battery Park with Sonic Youth in 2008.)

Nevertheless, no, I was not blown away by “Here Before,” the band’s first album of new material since 1991—at least not on the first few listens. But if any band besides Radiohead deserves more than a few idle spins before forming your opinion, it’s the Feelies, and I’m happy to say that their latest is a real grower.

On the last two albums before their long hiatus, “Only Life” (1988) and “Time for a Witness” (1991), the Feelies were shaking their notorious tendencies as studio perfectionists, inveterate tinkerers, and chronic slowpokes and returning to the quicker-and-dirtier methods of their early Stooges- and “White Light/White Heat”-influenced days in the garages of suburban Haledon, N.J. And this was even more evident in lead guitarist and vocalist Glenn Mercer’s post-Feelies output, which included three fine discs with Wake Ooloo and an excellent 2007 solo album, all for Chicago’s Pravda Records.

Little of that fire and fury can be heard on “Here Before,” and the mad-scientist minimalism of the band’s enduring 1980 classic “Crazy Rhythms” is even less in evidence. The most obvious precedent is instead the Midwestern pastoralism of “The Good Earth” (1986), which in terms of epitomizing the jangly end of the spectrum in ’80s indie rock, ranks second only to “Murmur” by R.E.M. (whose Peter Buck co-produced his heroes back then). The influence at that time was the Feelies’ first extended trips crossing the vast midsections of the U.S. in a van, inspiring a generation with those insistent guitar chords and undertow rhythms. Now, it seems to be more a function of growing older and mellowing, at least in the sense of enjoying serene and simple pleasures more than ever.

The band always has treated the vocals as just one more element in its unique sonic stew, and it’s never placed undue emphasis on the meaning of the lyrics. But that isn’t stopping plenty of folks from quoting lines such as “Is it too late to start again/Or should we wait another ten?,” “Waiting for your call/I don’t mind at all,” and “How many times/I heard it before/Do it again/Do it some more” as direct commentaries on why it has decided to return to the stage after all these years. Me, I know the boys with the perpetual nervousness better than that, and at heart, every one of their songs really is a nervous but optimistic consideration of the pluses and minuses of just getting out of bed in the morning.

The pluses always win, thankfully, as they do here, and with each spin, the list of these beautiful and indelible moments grows longer: the fragile bells and gorgeous guitar chords that usher in “So Far,” the carefully layered backing vocals of “Should Be Gone,” the counterpoint of the Brian Eno-style noises with Brenda Sauter’s incredibly melodic bass on “When You Know,” the sleepy drone of “Morning Comes,” the epic, tubular Mercer guitar solos on “Way Down” and “Change Your Mind,” the aggressive agitation of the breakdown in “Time Is Right” (which, come to think of it, does echo a bit of the “Crazy Rhythms”-era track “The Obedient Atom”), and, pretty much throughout, the ever-reliable contributions of Bill Million, who ranks high atop any tally of the most underrated contributors in all of rock: the great rhythm guitar players.

I could go on—and on, and on—but I’d really rather just listen again. And so should you.

On the four-star scale: 3.5 STARS

STILL IN HEAVY ROTATION

TV on the Radio, “Nine Types of Light” (Interscope)

Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes” (Atlantic)

Screeching Weasel, “First World Manifesto” (Fat Wreck Chords)

Lupe Fiasco, “Lasers” (Atlantic)

Lucinda Williams, “Blessed” (Lost Highway)

Radiohead, “The King of Limbs” (self-released)

Drive-By Truckers, “Go-Go Boots” (ATO)

North Mississippi Allstars, “Keys to the Kingdom” (Songs of the South)

Smith Westerns, “Dye It Blonde” (Fat Possum)

The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead” (Capitol)

 

 

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