As Good As Any American Band, Bar/None – The Feelies Reissues: “Only Life” (1988) and “Time For A Witness” (1991)

The Feelies
Only Life / Time For A Witness
Bar/None Records

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feelies only life

To ‘get’ the Feelies, should that be necessary (in itself difficult to believe; with a sound as infectious as theirs it’s more likely they’ll get you before your critical faculties even have a chance to engage), it’s perhaps instructive to consider that during the band’s first incarnation in 1976 they called themselves the Outkids. As much as the Huxley-derived ‘Feelies’ has to come to taxonomically signify everything we, um, feel about the band, sealing all our emotions around them in a tidy box of our own experience, it’s a credible suggestion that, had they stuck with that early moniker, our view of the band would have been augmented from the outset by an understanding of their (somewhat displaced) sense of place and belongingness that founding members Glenn Mercer and Bill Millions clearly understood. The Feelies, you see, quite gloriously never quite fit in.

Even having heard, as we all had, the 7″ version of “Fa-Ce-La,” their debut 1979 single on Rough Trade, there still wasn’t much to prepare us for the emergence of full-length Crazy Rhythms the following year. It’s rare to be instantly struck by equal parts mouth-agaped-standing-motionless astonishment and a tweaky effervescent jubilation at the drop of a needle onto vinyl but that was exactly my and nearly anyone’s reaction that April day in 1980. This was in an East Bay indie shop on a main suburban drag near where I’d grown up (and out of) and where I was returning every day in a naive attempt to spread the post-punk gospel to those less exposed in the broad-but-narrow valley of my youth. A fool’s errand that required traction where next to none was available, I nonetheless held that if any record might ensnare those that might wander in out of an aimlessly daring curiosity – ‘location location location’ has very possibly never meant ‘less less less’ than in this endeavor – this irresistible gem unearthed from the wilds of New Jersey, with its indomitable hooks, spectacularly modest élan, and its charming imperviousness to prevailing fashion, would be it. No threatening gloom (or Costellian snark), no in-your-face angularity, no outward funk or dub inflections, almost incessantly upbeat to boot, Crazy Rhythms was crazy in all the right ways. That in the end it didn’t, predictably, break through to the early-adopter soccer moms or the mall-fed heavy metal T-shirt kids that had opted for monolithic corporate power chords as their own brand of teenage rebellion, didn’t matter. The Feelies had arrived for the rest of us in a splash of anti-splendor and their approach and how they looked so endearingly gelled with the sound they made and how they made it – musically Crazy Rhythms was fresh, confident, startling and impeccable; ‘breeziness’ has never been more drivingly expressed – that few bands before or since have seemed so utterly adoptable, which made the forthcoming silence a bit difficult to endure, let alone understand.

 

Not that the individual members were idle but, just to muddy the myth, let’s guess that the critical success of their debut caught them by surprise and at least slightly overwhelmed, calling into question ambitions they’d never designed in the first place and so, for sanity’s sake, they let them wilt as they took up new projects (check out the Trypes, Yung Wu, the Willies). In 1986, as if to be certain the then-still hyperspeed world of rock fashion had ensured that they’d fallen out of it, the Feelies returned with The Good Earth, a record the arrival of which may have been mostly unexpected but its contents, had anyone conjectured what a second Feelies album would sound like after the band spent six seasoning years in exile, was not. In many ways as pastoral as its title, less caffeinated of tempo and as reflective as might be predicted from a band slightly reshaped and a full seven years past their initial burst of eager youth, that record, good as it nonetheless is – especially in retrospect – has a placemaker feel to it, proclaiming via subtext that, yeah, they might be back but they’d find their full footing at their own considered pace. Thus do we arrive at the next two installments of Bar/None’s reissue series.

Displaying a fairly impressive turn-over rate, Only Life emerged in 1988 to the collective exhale of a fanbase happy to have their insatiable ‘next album’ wait cut by two-thirds. Though in some respects still present, The Good Earth‘s relative cling of restraint has loosened here, especially on throwback centerpiece “The Undertow,” a restless if steady, percussive assault on the original template, full of that charming impatience that so grabbed us on their debut and lovingly crafted to include a lengthy fade-out that curiously mirrors those slow-waking lead-ins that marked the likes of “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness.” Elsewhere the pulse rate is brought to a purposely lower thrum by the pair of disciplined, down-throttle favorites “Deep Fascination” and “Higher Ground,” both bedizened by signature fretwork pushed inevitably forward by the relaxed grooves in which they’re frameworked and this, I think, is as good a point as any to say that, to this writer, the renowned dual guitar strands of this band as often court similarities with the Verlaine/Lloyd tandem they do the Feelies’ other more oft-cited influences, Mercer and Millions twining the ringing clarity of their lines around each other with a dizzying dizygotic intuition. No matter the tune, whatever its rhythm crazy or not, the critical central key to – and crucial paradox of – this band is the extent to which their trademark style is grounded by the spiraling elegance of that guitar sound. However, when it’s additionally thrown on top of a drum bass and percussion combo – by this time Stan Demeski, Brenda Sauter, and Dave Weckerman, respectively – that’s maniacally astute and damn near lethal, the result is a 5-headed personification of ‘inimitable’ (one need only consult the breathless and well-named “Too Far Gone” for further, wholly unneeded evidence).

 

All that said, what one finds possibly most intriguing about Only Life is the unambiguous bookending of its tracklist, as opener and kinda title track “It’s Only Life,” mid-tempo and a-burst with a mellowed vigor, finds Mercer’s vocal phrasing perilously (purposely, one assumes?) close to the sweet urban monotonics of what by that stage had become the solo Lou Reed voice, while the album closes with a purely joyous, torn-up version of “What Goes On” that surely hovers near the top of the ‘best VU covers of all time, proving that 1) the band’s gift for the transcendent jitter remained undiminished, 2) their aesthetic debt to the Underground would continue to go happily unpaid in full, and 3) any listen to any Feelies album then or now or in between is game over when it comes to resistance of any measure. Scary thing? Their drive to return, buoyed now by their hard-won experience, to that earlier brand of their own wild mercury sound – headlong, often half-unhinged yet as titanium-tight as German engineering – was only getting started. Few years down the road, Time For A Witness would land like a flash grenade made of sound.

As Michael Azzerad’s liner notes make clear, there’s likely some particularly telling context behind the nature of Witness‘ sound – a too-long, arduous tour to support Only Life, their label (A&M) getting hoovered up by PolyGram with the inevitable fall-out of lost internal support – but whatever the impetus it brought a fire. Kicking open the door, “Waiting” does exactly the opposite with an immediate hysteria of guitar before settling into a simmering groove with a powder-keg consistency that, sure enough, soon enough, explodes with one of those outbursts of coiled intensity that had long become synonymous with this band. Quick on its tripping heels comes the title track. spiraling off from some of that jungle playground percussion that had also helped them make their initial mark into a skittering accelerant of a pop song that somehow, against the odds, manages to keep up with its brilliant self. Vocally, rhythmically, wonderfully, there’s forever something Tourette’s-like to the Feelies at their uptempo-est, a firecracker string detonation of tics that catches one’s attention in a helpless state of rising adrenaline and Time For A Witness, a full twelve years on, exemplifies that quality as daringly as anything on their debut. Somehow, as their famous jitter became more assured it became not so much wilder as deeper and therefore, arguably, more resoundingly effective.

 

They do slow down on this record, but even then – on “Find A Way” with its sultry nightsweat feel, the clawing rawness of “Decide,” or on “What She Said” which is easygoing garage blues Feelies-style – a pent-upness lurks beneath the surface, something of the anxious beast pacing in its cage (hell, “For Now,” otherwise almost contemplative in sound like a dusky drive up the turnpike, has Mercer singing about restlessness like there’s a prowl in his voice). And while all this bubbling-under unease may indeed reflect a band dealing with the turmoil of, well, being in a band, it also suggests – and look no further than “Doin’ It Again” for confirmation of this, brimming with a smoothed-out spikiness that even involves a guitar breakout on par – I swear – with the Outlaws had they been born a New Jersey new wave band – a quintet of musicians grounded in joy, their innate effervescent tendencies now attended by an almost flippant coherence by which they were able, at will, to tap whatever depth with their own peculiar flair. Co-produced by Gary Smith (The Chills, Pixies, Throwing Muses), the tracks’ foundations recorded live, one gets the parallel sense with this record that Mercer and Millions and Co felt there were nearly no limitations to their potential and that they were working without a net by this time and comfortably, not even bothering to look down.

If forced to choose between these two albums I’d cry for weeks then go with Witness but that’s as goofy a Hobson’s choice as there’s ever been and fortunately none of us have to make it. As no doubt the label that’s bringing us these reissues named themselves with just this sort of sentiment in mind, the freshly reappraised strength of both Only Life and Time For A Witness makes it safe to say that the Feelies are as good as any American rock band has ever been, bar none.