Marked by references to time and its passage, the impermanence of emotional bonds and places.
It’s been six years since The Feelies graced us with an LP, the unsurprisingly strong Here Before. It’s never been the New Jersey outfit’s approach to hurry a good thing and so the relative silence between then and now probably didn’t have fans worrying holes in the floor about when the next opus would arrive. With a covers EP (Uncovered) issued in 2016 and a beautifully strange solo effort from co-founder Glenn Mercer (Incidental Hum) to tide us over, the faithful had plenty to think about in those spaces.
All that you’ve come to love about this veteran band is present on In Between: Jangling guitars, the sounds of contemplation and understated vocal deliveries. As usual, you get the sense that the first 100 listens will only scratch the surface of all that’s present in the grooves. Subtle percussive touches buoy the would-be anthem “Flag Days” amid the deft rhythmic work of guitarists Mercer and Bill Million. They lay a solid foundation that guides the tune from verse to chorus and back again without rushing or overstating its intentions. The racing rhythms and buzzing lead lines heard in “Gone, Gone, Gone” offer glimpses of emotional frustration that nearly comes to a boil before it backs off and the music fades into darkness, leaving us curious about where the conversation will pick up next.
A certain irony is central to The Feelies in general and this LP in particular. The compositions can be quiet, nuanced, seemingly polite but when you reach for the volume knob and raise it to holy heights, new colors and textures reveal themselves. There is now and always has been a sophisticated code of dynamics present here. This is a band as informed by the flaming, billowy grooves of Neil Young and Crazy Horse as to the artful gaze of the Velvet Underground.
Two versions of the title piece summon further comparisons to Young as the opening rendition clocks out just below the four-minute mark. Its breezy guitar lines and dreamlike vocals suggest friends gathered around an art school campfire, strumming the chords and engaging in fun call-and-response singalong. Its counterpart closes out the whole shebang, stretching beyond the nine-minute point and is filled with gleefully noisy electric guitar lines. Within seconds, a different dynamic emerges between performer and listener; it’s an artier experience, one fraught with tensions that might have seemed impossible to predict when hearing the first iteration. Yet, its joyous places, its ability to soar and glide remains intact. Uncovering the possibilities in a single composition by casting it in a different light can be difficult to achieve. Here, it’s one of the greatest and most memorable feats of the collection and further testament to the group’s willingness to explore its ability to transform experimentation into success.
There are other marvels along the way. “Turn Back Time,” delicious and infections, lands in the pantheon of all-time Feelies’ greats. “Stay The Course” tips its hat toward folk while losing none of the quintet’s knack for musical daring. “Been Replaced” offers further evidence of how much Yo La Tengo and others have gleaned from the Million/Mercer school of songwriting. Meanwhile, “Time Will Tell” suggests a world in which The Feelies became a pop radio staple, though it gives us more of the off-center brilliance we crave.
Though talk often turns to the formidable partnership between Million and Mercer, close listening reveals the full scope of the band. Dave Weckerman adds letter-perfect percussion touches while Stan Demeski remains sensitive to melodic structure and each song’s emotional intent. Brenda Sauter consistently finds the right spaces to work her bass magic. All of that serves to remind that this is an ensemble with considerable gifts. Those gifts evolve with each passing release, providing us with the correct balance of familiarity and surprise.
In Between is marked by references to time and its passage, the impermanence of emotional bonds and places. That is in some ways only the beginning. The desire to unravel those meanings and dive into the compositional layers, the emotional and music counterparts and counterpoints, gives the record some unexpected weight. It is a weight that one accepts gladly, knowing that the answers lurk somewhere in between these songs and the heart of the listener, will make us something different. If not better, then surely wiser and ready to embrace whatever lessons time has in store.