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Jim DeRogatis

The Feelies’ ‘In Between’ Is An Irresistible Place to Be

“Being in the Feelies is like living in a pyramid,” Dave Weckerman, the percussionist and resident philosopher of long-running underground heroes the Feelies told the Dean of New Jersey rock critics Jim Testa way back in 1987, early into the band’s first reunion. “Nothing ever changes and no one ever gets older.”

That quote resonates for anyone entranced by the crazy rhythms of In Between, the legendary quintet’s new album, released as it celebrates its impressive 40th anniversary. So does another from Tim Gane, a driving force in Stereolab, one of many bands very much inspired by the Feelies: “Sometimes I feel like it’s a big block of music,” he once told me, “and we just chip bits off and record them.”

All of this is to say that the Feelies have not significantly altered their formula over four decades, but it’s the rare case where that doesn’t matter a whit. The joys of their unique sound—the irresistible forward propulsion of the slightly syncopated twist that Weckerman, drummer Stan Demeski, and bassist Brenda Sauter put on their Bo Diddley-via-the Velvet Underground grooves, combined with Bill Million’s relentless rhythm guitar and Glenn Mercer’s harmonic decorations and occasional lead-guitar eruptions—remain undiminished, as fresh and undeniable today as they were on the band’s 1980 debut.

That introductory bow Crazy Rhythms is the slight exception in the mere six albums the band has given us over these many years. The boys with the perpetual nervousness were a lot more frenetic and amped-up back then, as well as more mad-scientist obsessive in the recording studio. Like R.E.M.’s Murmur, the album is the group’s most distinctive, a singular masterpiece with a vibe all its own, and it forwards many of the innovations of both the Velvets and Brian Eno on his four “pop” albums. But it was the only album the group produced in round one, which lasted from 1976 until 1980. Then the Feelies disappeared for a time, as has been their habit.

The first reunion and second incarnation introduced the lineup that persists to this day. Stretching from 1986 to 1991, round two yielded three albums that offered a more bucolic take on those crazy rhythms, evoking long drives through the autumn fields of the Midwest. Not coincidentally, it was the soundtrack to the band’s busiest period of touring, and it was a staple in the vans of countless other indie touring groups crisscrossing the country in the years before the alternative explosion. Produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M., The Good Earth (1986) still is the favorite of many fans, though the recently reissued follow-ups Only Life (1988) and Time for a Witness (1991) are equally powerful. Then, feeling the tug of adulthood, better-paying jobs, and “real life,” the Feelies disappeared once more, with many fans fearing that this break would be for good.

Sitting cross-legged in his pyramid, Weckerman probably knew better. The Feelies reunited again in 2008, when Greg Kot and I were thrilled to host one of their first born-yet-again performances on Sound Opinions. Then came Here Before in 2009, a rare offering that made that year’s 10 Best lists for both Greg and me. And now In Between.

What’s changed? Nothing, really. Mercer’s lyrics remain mantra-like and elliptical—“Are you dreaming/In real time?”; “Take your time/Not going anywhere”; “What do you want to know?/What do you want to do?”—continuations of the inner-dialogue he’s quoted from the beginning, and which many of us hear as well. His solos, especially during the chaotic disc-ending reprise of the title track, continue to place him beside the best post-punk guitar heroes—Robert Quine or Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television—creating furious explosions that are nonetheless endlessly hummable. His bandmates never fail to add the perfect touches—the gently echoed backing vocals, the accent of rosewood claves, the perfectly timed snare hit—on top of those perfect grooves. It all combines for tracks such as “Turn Back Time,” “Stay the Course,” and “Time Will Tell” that are as strong as any in the band’s cannon—more perfectly formed cubes chipped off that giant musical iceberg.

Create a playlist with all 54 tracks on the Feelies’ last five albums—keep Crazy Rhythms as a thing unto itself, but feel free to add the scattered EP-only tunes if you’d like—hit “shuffle,” and enjoy one of the best rides in rock history, consistently entrancing, timeless, and brilliant. Happy Anniversary, Feelies. Here’s to another 40.

The Feelies, In Between (Bar/None)

Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.

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