The Feelies | Here Before (Bar/None)

Here Before is a consistent little postcard from the early ‘80s that sounds a lot like early R.E.M. because early R.E.M. sounded a lot like the Feelies.

 

 

On April 12, without any major marketing push or blog fanfare, underexposed Jersey natives the Feelies released their fifth album, Here Before. The lack of attention paid is significant and perplexing. First of all, this is the band’s first album to come out in 19 years. They reunited a couple of years ago (one of the many bands from the early ‘80s to do so in the past 10 years), toured, played some festivals, and apparently concluded that they had more to say to the world.

The Feelies’ influence has been felt throughout the past three decades. They’ve left their imprint on many guitar-based bands who get saddled with the “college radio,” “indie,” “post punk,” or “lo fi” labels. R.E.M. has cited them as a major influence; the first couple of R.E.M. albums display an unmistakable similarity to the Feelies’ angular guitar playing and elastic lyrical phrasing. And this relationship was not one sided, as R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck produced the Feelies’ second album in 1985.

So why now in 2011, which has seen a new R.E.M. album, Collapse Into Now, and a very R.E.M.-sounding album with The Decemberists’ The King is Dead, is there so little talk about the Feelies?  Many reviews of those two aforementioned albums make comparisons between them. Most often in these cases, reviewers seem to be wishing that the new R.E.M. album sounded more like the new Decemberists album—which is reminiscent of an early R.E.M. sound. Well, Here Before is a consistent little postcard from the early ‘80s that sounds a lot like early R.E.M., because early R.E.M. sounded a lot like the Feelies.

Vocally, the Feelies’ lead singer Bill Mercer sounds like a melding of Jonathan Richmond and Lou Reed, with a little Tom Petty thrown in. Some nice background harmonies provide a deep sonic landscape for the lyrical content of Here Before, which seems self-referential but with a winking awareness rather than hairshirt-wearing angst. These guys seem to embody the Gen X philosophy; this world is a rough one that is set up to make everyone fail, but we are still going to try and embody the change we want to see.

While this contradiction is evident throughout the album, it is featured most prominently in the album opener “Nobody Knows” with the line, “Nobody says anything really that hasn’t been said / Well you never know how it’s going to go,” which seems to poke fun at their return while at the same time celebrating it. Then the second track destroys that sentiment with the line, “Bring up the past / Like yesterday / Try to recall what was so great / Should be gone, been too long.” These contradictions and thematic bridges reward repeated listens.

Musically, each song is a lesson in post punk rock. On the surface, they seem to be straightforward: verse / chorus / verse, with some solid solos thrown in. But thanks to the nicely textured guitar work (their website claims that they have the best guitar tones out there), this straightforwardness seems almost subversive. The consistent mid tempo of the album allows you to listen to it start to finish as background music, while the lyrics and guitar work invite deep, focused listening. Individually, there are some fun songs that work outside of the context of the album, like the slow burn of “On and On,” or the rocker “Time is Right.”

Conversely, it can get a little boring. On first listen, I was pretty bored by the time I got to the end; their earlier work has a lot more punch. This could be a reflection of their age, or perhaps it is because this whole album has a world weary, been there, Here Before kind of feel to it. Also, in some parts the vocals (which are much closer to talking than signing) are difficult to understand. I recognize that this is probably an intentional part of the band’s aesthetic, but it is not a quality I embrace.

However, these are minor quibbles; Here Before is a solid listen. New fans should seek out the Feelies’ debut Crazy Rhythms. Old fans will be psyched because this album sounds like the band picked right up where they left off without retreading previously covered ground. And in the end, the lack of attention that this release has garnered is fitting. The Feelies have always been a “musician’s band” rather than a popular band—enjoying critical praise over mainstream notoriety. The Village Voice dubbed them “the best underground band” in 1978, and it is pretty amazing that 30 years later they still retain their underground cool. Hopefully, their next album will arrive before 2030 (assuming we all make it past 2012). But if this is the last we hear from the Feelies, the album’s closer, "So Far," is an excellent farewell. B+ | Tony Van Zeyl

 

 

 

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