There are a few stock phrases that are deployed generously when a band returns from an extended hiatus with music that succeeds beyond plain nostalgia. Most commonly, music writers will pronounce, “It’s as if they never went away.” Here Before, the new album from the Feelies, may very well inspire one or two people to offer up that well-worn phrase, but I think it’s especially ill-fitting in this instance. The Feelies do sound like they’ve been away, but they sound like they’ve been away for exactly the right amount of time.
The album starts beautifully with “Nobody Knows,” a song that sounds like the first day that spring decisively overtakes winter. The song opens with the lines, “Is it too late / To do it again?” up against a jaunty guitar line that is familiar but leaner, easier, smoother than the band’s past work. They’ve gently aged out of the jittery energy that drove their earlier efforts. It still has the deadpan groove, but also an adopted tone that is weirdly reminiscent of that taken by Tom Petty on his solo records. It’s the sound of an artist who can somehow make a lack of urgency seem almost profound.
That endearing ease continues throughout the album which has more groove than agitation, something that might cause disappointment for those longtime fans who still revere their wired debut Crazy Rhythms, a fine record that probably benefited from its prolonged lack of availability, its very elusiveness making it seem more special and musically deep. I’m in the minority that feels the band did their best work later, most notably on the 1988 album Only Life, which fully merged their driven strumming and spattered drum beats with a more contemplative quality. The songs still had energy, but merged with a nicely tempering coolness. They no longer played like a band that was certain they’d be yanked off the stage at any moment.
That easygoing confidence is the defining quality of Here Before. Something like “Way Down” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on those earlier records, but here it takes on the additional shimmer of earned wisdom. Its simple but inarguably shrewd lyrics – “Try to find to way to take control / Now it’s time before it takes its toll” – cut nicely against the steady churn of the music. The album has few showstoppers, but several quiet winners.
The band has always had a debt to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, and there are times on Here Before when it almost sounds like they’re delivering the finest Reed solo songs that never were. The sort of disaffected toughness that was Reed’s trademark informs “Morning Comes” and “Time Is Right,” but the tracks don’t wind up sounding derivative. Instead, they’re the proper realization of the band’s well-established and much-missed sound.
By the time the album draws to a close with the sleepy “So Far,” the Feelies have clearly established that they’re not just a band that attracted a lucrative new fan base years after their dissolution. What they’ve found – rediscovered, actually – is their voice, the swirling, charging music built from clear, recognizable influences, part hereditary and yet utterly unique. Much as I loved the band, it never would have occurred to me that a new Feelies record was needed. Here Before proves my shortsightedness. Music this good is always needed.
by Dan Seeger