The Feelies were a mainstay of the American indie scene way before that term really existed. In multiple eras when that sort of music went from being called alternative to being called college rock, The Feelies provided listeners with accessible and comforting entry-points into something that was outside the Top 40, something that had its roots in the genuinely avant-garde. Much has been made of The Feelies debt to The Velvet Underground and, yeah, there's no getting around the bits that sound just like Lou and crew. Still, it's worth noting now how much here has also been influenced by stuff like Big Star, or even Neil Young. And that is to say that there was no "John Cale" in The Feelies to push things into genuinely dangerous territory, and that's not to knock what is here, or deny that The Feelies took their love of The Velvet Underground and went in unique directions with it. The truth is that The Feelies sound even better now than they did then. Remarkably consistent over the course of their 4 main releases, The Feelies refined the very terms of American rock and one must at least thank them for that.
If you haven't played any Feelies in a while, shame on you. If you haven't and want a reminder or two of why this band was so, so good, you'd be wise to get copies of 1988's Only Life and 1991's Time For A Witness, both dropping tomorrow on Bar/None in fine reissue packages complete with bonus tracks and new liner notes.
Only Life hit the streets in the fall of 1988, right around the time that I started working at the Record Co-Op on the campus of the University of Maryland. It was, at the time at least, the perfect record for that store and that era. Listened to now, it seems the "safest" of the Feelies set of releases. "It's Only Life" admirably swings and stuff like "The Undertow" and "Deep Fascination" do manage to work up grooves that are compelling. Still, compared to the first 2 Feelies albums, it can only seem a disappointment. If The Feelies had gone from herky jerky pop to pastoral college rock they were now, in 1988, becoming alternative in name only. Still, for all the smooth edges here, stuff like "Too Far Gone" offers up something affecting.
By the time of 1991's Time For A Witness it was as if The Feelies had regained their spark and thought of a way to marry their earlier styles with the more mellow riffs from their previous albums. Not entirely as kinetic as Crazy Rhythms, 1991's Time For A Witness at least has moments of real fire, most notably a well-done cover of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and the sublime title cut. Regrettably, this was gonna be it for The Feelies for some time. If the band hit some sort of peak here, finally sounding comfortable with their more mature sound, they were also wrapping up the first long phase of their career.
In the wake of this release and 1991's grunge explosion thanks to the success of Nirvana's first Geffen album later in the year, college rock would become more of a defined commodity and loads of bands -- acts as diverse as The Posies, Beulah, and Teenage Fanclub -- would make music like what's here on these 2 Feelies releases. The influence of The Feelies would extend over countless acts much like that long shadow of The Velvet Underground had so guided Mercer and his crew for so long. A pleasant reminder of the pre-grunge era, when alt-rock bands could refine music like this, tour it relentlessly in the USA, and achieve some comfortable level of fan support, Time For A Witness and Only Life are 2 of the very best examples of the very best era in alt-rock, and pretty good refresher courses into what made American indie so good in an era when the Brits were flooding our shores with fantastic bands too.
Only Life (1988) and Time For A Witness (1991) are both out tomorrow on Bar/None. Each release has bonus tracks and new liner notes. I urge you to get these, or get them again as the case may be. You can follow The Feelies via the wwwTheFeeliesWeb.com.
"Away" from Only Life, live on MTV, 1988
"Doin' It Again" from Time For A Witness, live on the David Letterman show, 1991