The Feelies continue on the path they paved, a far cry from their caffeinated origins, having blossomed into a group that delvers more than frenetic bop and impressively interwoven chords.
With its crafted textures and sharp production by Bill Million and Glenn Mercer, there’s not a weak track on the Feelies’ 2011 release Here Before, which at the time was their first new album in 20 years. The autumnal album will grow on listeners who have followed the band since they burst onto the indie scene in the late ‘70s. Those who were there back then may approach reunions—especially after such a long hiatus–with caution. But after two decades the band picks up right off where the folksier The Good Earth (1986) merged with the muted songs on the overlooked Only Life (1988).
Not as exuberant as Crazy Rhythms or as Dylanesque as the tetchy Time for a Witness, the mid-tempo, steady, strumming pastoral of Here Before recalls Luna, where drummer Stan Demeski floated off to after the Feelies, and naturally sounds like genial New Jersey neighbors Speed the Plough (whose lineup featured a few Feelies) and Yo La Tengo. Those who followed the Hoboken muses to such side projects as The Trypes, Yung Wu, Wake Ooloo and Mercer’s solo work will recognize the signature chiming guitar sound that would influence bands like Galaxie 500, R.E.M. and The Replacements.
What stands out on Here Before is the band’s typically understated vocals, more unassuming even on the peppier “Time is Right” as a subtler tone provides a solid foundation for the (mostly) laid-back band. There’s an insistent riff within the Velvet Underground-like “On and On” (much of the band’s output seems to have sprung forth from “What Goes On”) even if one will hear fewer percussion tricks from Dave Weckerman elsewhere. But with the twin axes of Bill Million and Glenn Mercer, the guitar work digs in under the layered drones and rave ups that define the band, especially in its live shows. This electric feature, stratified here and tangled there, is their contribution to the vocabulary of rock, one they’ve tinkered with and softened as they’ve matured, but one that persists.
Deep meanings and searching lyrics have never been part of the Million-Mercer sound. Even when they’d turn up the amplification and launch into one of their signature rave-ups, their voices, barely mixed above the music, offered gentle observations, which starts with the title. Here Before addresses middle age, nostalgia, rumination and perseverance. The tone allows for even more contemplation. The Feelies do not offer arena-ready anthems or sappy inspirational verses. Perhaps in contrast to their New Jersey home, this band is stoic, as befits its understated presence on stage as well as in the studio, singing their songs as if muttering to themselves and burrow down into their meditations.
Musicians with a message, they approached this record as if reluctant to make a fuss. The title suggests the return of something familiar, and as the band members reunited after many years apart, it remains a casually conceived, introverted and slightly rustic album, a direction heralded in the rural cover for The Good Earth. That album may have been The Feelies’ first second act, with Peter Buck producing a less urgent, more jangly take on the edgy alertness from the debut Crazy Rhythms. On Here Before The Feelies continue on the path they paved, a far cry from their caffeinated origins, having blossomed into a group that delvers more than frenetic bop and impressively interwoven chords.
There’s an appealing maturity to this ensemble, with Brenda Sauter’s bass on “Bluer Skies” underpinning the optimism that invigorates this virtuosic yet modest and melancholy return. Fans waited many years for The Feelies to make their fifth album, and were glad it turned out so well—and even happier that it led to a sixth, 2017’s In Between.