Graded on a Curve:
The Feelies, Only Life, Time for a Witness

Few bands channeled extreme Velvet Underground fandom into a distinct approach and lengthy career better than New Jersey’s perennial favorites The Feelies. Most often celebrated for their hyperactive debut, subsequent catalog entries document an unusual level of consistency and disinclination to deviate from fertile soil for the sake of shallow diversity. Only Life and its follow-up Time for a Witness are a combo case in point, and as Bar/None has reissued both on CD/LP with bonus tracks the opportunity to soak up these solid, somewhat underrated albums has become much easier; they’re out March 11.

By 1988’s Only Life The Feelies were rightfully considered veterans. Formed in the mid-’70s in Haledon, NJ as the Outkids, after an Aldous Huxley-inspired name change they chalked up a handful of impressive early credits, e.g. a recently unearthed single for Ork Records and NYC gigs so frequent they were crowned with the accolade of “Best Underground Band in New York” by the tastemakers at the Village Voice.

That was 1978. A Rough Trade 45 arrived a year later, Crazy Rhythms emerged on Stiff in 1980, and if The Feelies had ceased to exist immediately thereafter they would still be a lauded entity and perhaps more so than is the current reality; in 1986, following the departure of drummer Anton Fier and bassist Keith DeNunzio, guitarist-vocalist Glenn Mercer, guitarist Bill Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stanley Demeski, and percussionist Dave Weckerman belatedly returned with The Good Earth through the labels Coyote and Twin/Tone.

Co-produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M., The Good Earth was an understandably mature affair in comparison to the edginess that defines Crazy Rhythms, but with no loss of overall worth, as the similarities to the Velvets really kick in on their second release; if not as emotionally gripping and instrumentally flailing as their initial outing, the contents of their sophomore showing nearly attain the same level in terms of quality.

It took them only two years to come up with Only Life, but a certain amount of nervousness did accompany purchase as they were making their debut for A&M. Not to rehash the indie/corporate divisiveness of yore, but when a borderline underground act (to use the Village Voice’s designation) such as The Feelies made the jump from independent distribution to the so-called big leagues the results were often far from pretty.

As their most polished effort to that point, Only Life didn’t abstain from engaging with aspects of the major label lifestyle, but it avoided going overboard with the sheen and more importantly remained focused on exploring a nook of the post-VU universe that was refreshingly about guitar-pop form over Reed-centric attitudinal swagger.

Of course, as distillers of hooks, energy, and economy The Feelies were also profoundly impacted by The Beatles, Stones, and Byrds, but the primary influence on “It’s Only Life” is Lou and company, the reflective, rather melancholy vocal combining with jangle and strum from the guitars (and a solo offering just a hint of Robert Fripp) sweetly propelled by limber bass and now signature metronomic drumming.

Alongside the substantial gap between Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth, a main factor in The Feelies’ limited sales figures (in comparison to IRS Records-era R.E.M., for example) pertains to a love of repetition recalling the Velvet’s third LP; it’s no shock Only Life ends on a cover of “What Goes On,” but it’s also under the surface of the relatively straightforward melodic rock of “Too Much” and asserted more explicitly in the pop-inclined “Deep Fascination.”

“Higher Ground” works the abovementioned ingredients into a highlight and in the process underscores the group as amongst the few East Coast counterparts to the corresponding Cali/AZ-based Paisley Underground phenomenon. The similarity is even tangible during the Crazy Rhythms-styled sprint and thump of “The Undertow” and the upswing of tempo culminating “For Awhile.”

“The Final Word” is a fine serving of well-honed guitar-pop, speedy and anxious in typical Feelies fashion, but it’s the incessant riff-drive of “Too Far Gone” that shifts into high gear for the homestretch and delivers a strong prelude to “Away.” The album’s highest profile selection, in part due to the swell video directed by longtime booster Jonathan Demme, it markedly contrasts from the standard operating practice for singles.

Instead of a concession to the marketplace, “Away” exemplifies the band through a gem of tune and delivery expertly building into a soaring tour de force. It’s a maneuver of utter confidence strikingly foreshadowing “What Goes On”; they don’t better the original or for that matter even equal it, but they do manage to do right by it, displaying respect and invigorating the source in equivalent amounts for the close.

That The Feelies were occasionally derided as wimpy must’ve seemed strange to those using ’91’s Time for a Witness as an intro; this time out the concluding cover, loaded with stomp and scorch, is the Stooges’ “Real Cool Time,” and the copious amp-gnaw of opener “Waiting” actually gets in spitting distance of Days of Wine and Roses-era Dream Syndicate.

The title-track infuses the Velvets template with mid-’60s Dylan-esque folk-rock burn, while “Sooner or Later” is high-test almost Petty and the Heartbreakers-like jangle sporting a suitably anthemic finale. It leads into “Find a Way,” the extended standout bringing things down only to gradually up the intensity; the whole is an unexpected yet welcome slab of psych-rock underlining Weckerman as far more than an auxiliary member. “Decide” follows, wedding further Paisley raucousness to post-Reed vocalizing.

The major label hints of Only Life are basically absent as sprightly pop-tinged numbers “Doin’ It Again” and “Invitation” are imbued with heft and “For Now” mingles ’60s roots with a touch of ’70s pop-rock. “What She Said” is distorted bluesy rock with an appropriate dash of harmonica; predicting developments in the neo-Stones ’90s, it gets pretty far afield from The Feelies’ core sound and effectively segues into “Real Cool Time.”

The Feelies have played numerous live shows over the years since (this writer will testify to the ’08 New Years Eve gig with Yo La Tengo being a doozy) and cut the sturdy Here Before in 2011; the bonus cuts found on the attached downloads feature fresh acoustic versions of “It’s Only Life” and “Find A Way” plus live material from their last show at the now defunct Maxwell’s including an enjoyable Sauter-sung “After Hours” and a thudding inspection of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

If one desires to experience the best of The Feelies the place to start is at the beginning. Be forewarned that the journey continues through Only Life and Time for a Witness and has yet to falter into the lackluster.

Only Life: 

Time for a Witness:

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text