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The Feelies - Here Before

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Artist: The Feelies

Album: Here Before

Label: Bar-None

Review date: Apr. 7, 2011

Yes, they have been here before. The first run by suburban New Jersey combo The Feelies lasted from 1976 to 1991, including a half-decade lull during the early ‘80s where they played more often under assumed names or in branch combos (The Willies, The Trypes, Yung Wu) than their usual moniker. Worn down by the expense of touring and aware that they were increasingly out of step with the sounds of the times, they broke up in 1991. Lead singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer and percussionist Dave Weckerman never stopped playing together, but it took both the reissue of the band’s back catalog and rhythm guitarist Bill Million’s rediscovery of his instrument after more than a decade in its case (reportedly because his teenaged son started playing one) to bring them back together. Their gig at Chicago’s Millennium Park in 2009 wasn’t just a reminder of old glories; it was a time-machine trip back to one of their late ‘80s concerts. They played the old songs the same way right down to note-for-note recreations of the guitar breaks, they paced the set the same way right down to the heap of encores at the end, and from a distance (it’s a big park) they even looked the same.

There were a few new songs tucked into the set, however, which raised the possibility that this reunion could be more than your usual nostalgia trip. The first lines that Mercer sings on Here Before‘s “Nobody Knows” impart a degree of self-doubt that feels like a grown-up version of the tightly wound angst that pervaded the first Feelies album:

    “Is it too late to start again,

    Or should we wait another ten?”

That self-awareness of The Feelies’ revenant circumstances recurs throughout Here Before. They seem bemused to be back again, but they’re not sorry about it; the next song is called “Should Be Gone,” but the rejoinder “it’s been too long” should resonate with anyone who has ever met up with an old friend after a decade-plus lay-off and found that yes, there is still something there.

Other songs revisit old Feelies’ territory — suburban alienation, interpersonal awkwardness, and the fleeting comfort of connection — in typically telegraphic fashion. Mercer has never been accused of loquaciousness. But the perspective is different. There’s a reassuring thread of calm and optimism woven through Here Before‘s songs; it’s as though the “Boy(s) With Perpetual Nervousness” have grown up to become the folks who have been around the block, and they want us all to know that as long as you’re alive, things aren’t too bad.

Sonically, The Feelies still sound like The Feelies. The sturdy Velvet Underground-derived rhythms, Mercer’s dry vocal style and fluid guitar leads, and the giddy exhilaration that they throw off whenever they pick up the pace remain intact, and there are catchy tunes on board to keep you from forgetting the record after it’s over. Aside from one scary moment — Mercer sings the lines quoted above in a spot-on recreation of Tom Petty circa Traveling Wilburys, which is a little too Granddad-rock for comfort — most of the changes are in the details, like the guitar solo on “When You Know.” How did Mercer make his guitar sound like a free-jazz wooden flute ensemble playing forward and backward at once? I’d sure like to know.

Here Before isn’t a perfect album. The energy ebbs midway through, and it’d be nice to have a few more surprises like that guitar solo. But it tells the truth; The Feelies really are here again, operating in a fashion as insular and purposeful as they did in days of old without denying who they are now. It’s good to have them around.

By Bill Meyer

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