The Feelies – Here Before

The first new Feelies album in twenty years is … pleasant.  It gives me no pleasure to damn this storied band with faint praise, but I’m calling ’em like I see ’em. Here Before delivers the mid-tempo jangle you’d expect from this still-mostly-Jersey quintet, and will be a welcome tonic to longtime fans. What it lacks, however, is the spark to justify a two-decade wait.

Co-leader Glenn Mercer nods to his band’s evasive profile, opening “Nobody Knows” by playfully asking, “Is it too late to do it again/ or should we wait another ten?”  From that kickoff the album churns along at a genial clip, its pastoral vibe in keeping with their 1986 sophomore standout The Good Earth (don’t even think about a reprise of debut kinetic masterpiece Crazy Rhythms; these boys – and girl – haven’t been perpetually nervous in ages). The band – its personnel unchanged since that 1986 reinvention despite the long layoff – sounds wonderfully in sync. And the result is akin to worthwhile outings by Mercer and percussionist Dave Weckerman’s Wake Ooloo, or that of bassist Brenda Sauter’s Wild Carnation. But this is a Feelies album, and there’s nothing on Here Before like the VU-style slow build of “Slipping into Something” or the hyper hoedown of “The Last Roundup” to push the set over the top. And the shortage of hooks draws focus to Mercer’s lyrics, never a strength but which here seem especially facile.

At the risk of fueling intra-band squabbles, it’s worth noting that nearly all the tracks that perk up the ears feature a co-writing credit from prodigal son (or in this case, prodigal grown up) Bill Million. It was Million’s abrupt decampment for Florida following 1991’s Time for a Witness, citing disenchantment with the music business and a desire to focus on his family, that drove the Feelies into extended hiatus. Though he claims not to have picked up a guitar for ten of those intervening years, Million’s had plenty of time to stockpile musical ideas so it’s not surprising his would stand out. Chief among these is the intriguing raga flavorings of “On and On,” which percolates for nearly four minutes before ending too soon. It’s a shame Million’s pen graces only 5 of 13 songs.

To some extent the Feelies are victims of the expectations resulting from their early success. Their albums have shown a gradual but acceptable decline in quality – numbers one and two were landmarks, three and four more pedestrian. Album number five, Here Before falls tidily into that continuum.

The Feelies
Here Before