Indie-rock icons the Feelies continue to play and tour at their own pace and comfort level
“Stay the course. Keep on trying.”
So sings Glenn Mercer on the Feelies’ In Between, their sixth album and second since rebooting in 2008. Last year, the Haledon, N.J., band founded by guitarists Mercer and Bill Million celebrated its 40th anniversary by reissuing 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time For A Witness plus a Record Store Day release of newly recorded covers. Those releases delayed In Between, which was finished early in 2016.
Time has always moved slowly in the Feelies’ world.
Crazy Rhythms, their frenetic, classic debut, arrived in 1980, but they waited six years for their second, the comparatively sedate The Good Earth, which was co-produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. That was the first Feelies album with the band’s current lineup of Mercer, Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman (although all five previously played together in bands such as the Trypes, the Willies and Yung Wu). After the (relatively) quick run of three albums between 1986 and 1991, Million relocated to Florida and the band retired until Sonic Youth coaxed a reunion in 2008 that led to sporadic touring—mostly weekend jaunts rather than extended tours—and to 2011’s Here Before.
“Six years between records is kind of standard almost for us; it’s the pace we go by,” says Mercer. “It’s our comfort level. We don’t feel the need to set up any particular deadlines. For us, being out of the public eye won’t have that big an effect.”
Stay the course, keep on trying, indeed. Or, to riff on the title of their poppiest moment, the Feelies are doin’ it again but in an unassuming, unforced manner. Mercer is rather laconic as he talks about the LP. “Stay The Course” might also be about getting the album done, but although “Perseverance was definitely a big part of making the record,” he says the hurdles were nothing unusual: recording delays, scheduling, equipment.
If Here Before sounded like a natural successor to Time For A Witness, eliding the passage of two decades, In Between initially sounds and looks like an extension of The Good Earth, the band’s most serene record. It opens with the sound of crickets and a familiar acoustic-guitar chord pattern anchoring the title track, and most of the songs, while still propelled by Demeski and Weckerman’s interlocking rhythms, are brief, leisurely and ruminative rather than caffeinated and forceful. For these Velvet Underground fans, the analogue is the self-titled third VU album (until its nine-minute final track, which switches allegiances to White Light/White Heat—more on that in a moment). Even the cover design, with its pale border and muted photo, recalls The Good Earth from 31 years ago.
Mercer, however, claims any parallels are coincidental. “I guess they both have a few more kind of mellow songs than some of the other records,” he says. “But really it wasn’t our intention to revisit that record directly. I think partially it has to do with a particular way we recorded Bill’s guitar. He plays a hollow-bodied electric, and we recorded the guitar with a mic, so you pick up a lot of the hollow-bodied aspects of it. So a lot of the parts that sound like they might be an acoustic guitar are really an electric, although it does have an acoustic quality to it.”
As for the cover art, Mercer notes that after Crazy Rhythms, all the albums have built on the same design template. Line them up, however, and In Between and The Good Earth are certainly most similar. Some tracks, especially “Turn Back Time,” could slip unobtrusively onto The Good Earth.
“Turn Back Time” is one of three songs with “time” in the title, which is perhaps appropriate for a band entering its fifth decade. “I didn’t set out to use that as a theme,” says Mercer. “When I was putting the titles together I thought of changing some of them because it was so obvious, but then, so what? Maybe part of it is that we have such little time together anyway that it becomes an element to dwell on.”
Some of In Between’s relaxed tenor came from the demos that Mercer created, either on his own or building on guitar tracks that Million sent. Mercer says the band liked the demos’ “laid back” feeling and wanted to retain that vibe as they worked together in Mercer’s Haledon studio. But that vibe is shattered by the title track, “In Between (Reprise),” which rides an insistent, loud, electric pulse for nine minutes.
“It’s called pedal tone or pedal point,” says Mercer. “It’s one of my compositional tools and one of my favorite things to hear in other people’s music. I think Eno might have been the one who pointed out actually the more you listen to it, it might appear to change—like Neil Young said about the one-note solo in ‘Cinnamon Girl’: ‘Well, it’s not one note, it’s a bunch of notes; they just happen to have the same name.’ You’re hearing something, but the reception changes; it’s something about the way the ear is able to process the information. You know, if you sit long enough, something that might have at one point looked inactive, you’ll see it be active. It’s something about the way you perceive things.”
“In Between (Reprise)” is everything the rest of the album is not: noisy, abrasive, teetering on the edge of chaos. And in adding that new, surprising layer, it elevates In Between. The level of abandon and aggression contrasts with the precision of the clarity of the previous tracks, a precision built on the rhythmic interplay that’s always been the Feelies’ hallmark. “Precision,” however, isn’t quite the right word.
“We’re actually not that precise, at least we don’t want it to be,” says Mercer. “The real excitement of rock ’n’ roll is when things are rubbing against one another or kind of going in and out and threatening to fall apart, and then it comes back. If it was totally precise, it wouldn’t be interesting.”