I used to wonder if the Feelies were just a band that I dreamed up. The New Jersey outfit made only four records, sporadically spaced over the course of 11 years, and I only caught them live once, a somewhat brief set opening up for their hero (and mine, at the time) Lou Reed at the opulent Palace Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. Dreamed because of their quick flashes of activity and because they seemed to accommodate all the qualities that I, if only on a subliminal level, admired in a band. They were urbane yet rural, quixotic but folky, smart and earnest—a whole string of paradoxes that added up to a frenetic bout of rock & roll yin and yang as compelling as it was seemingly forever oppositionally torn.
I remember hearing Crazy Rhythms for the first time many years after it was released. It was probably close to six years after it first came out in 1980, because it seemed like a feat of kismet when not too long after the long cloistered band finally released a follow-up, The Good Earth. Back then, in my teenage years, albums were the products of magic, things conjured out of materials I couldn’t fathom, and with the Feelies doubly so. These were records laced with the wiry guitar sounds that I could connect to the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, but the rhythmic pulses seemed somehow more primal, more earthen and more rustic than what those city slickers were capable of. This was stuff borne from the strange crossroads of suburbia, where the weed-cracked sidewalks met the long eroding marks of forgotten industry.
Crazy Rhythms is perhaps the perfect debut album. From the first rhythmic cracks of “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness,” this is an album that seems somehow guarded, as if the band wasn’t quite ready to let it all hang out. Sure, on “Loveless Love” and elsewhere, the frantic vocal and guitar interplay between Glenn Mercer and Bill Million seems on the verge of some kind of meltdown, but that dervish always seems tempered. It’s that restrain that gives the album a sense of teetering on the edge, like those faintly geeky rosy visages on its cover were belying something more hedonistic.
While the members of the band might have been continuing to play with one another under various guises, the fact that a new record under the banner of the Feelies didn’t appear for another six years certainly helped to build a mystique. And when they did resurface with The Good Earth, it was with a new line-up and a readjusted sound aided by REM’s Peter Buck producing. Some may have attributed the new accents to Mr. Buck, but REM probably dreamed of the Feelies too—as the band they wished they were.
Where Crazy Rhythms whirred with a frenetic sound reminiscent of the buzz of lawnmowers and motorized garage door openers, The Good Earth was rooted in acoustic strumming that seemed more indicative of wide open spaces and barren fields (as did its accompanying artwork). But like its predecessor, there were still odes to luminaries like the Velvets (see “Slipping (Into Something)” in particular), even though now the band had abandoned 125th street for route 80. Mercer and Million had seemingly mellowed, bathing the songs in beige swathes of acoustic, while the new rhythm section of Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman was creating a similar synergy in their own interplay. The Good Earth turned out to be, in my opinion, the record that best embodied all the Feelies could be and should have been.
While the band split two albums later in 1992, they’ve recently reconvened, and will in fact be playing Crazy Rhythms in its entirety this weekend at All Tomorrow’s Parties New York. After years of being out of print, both that album and The Good Earth have finally been remastered and rereleased with the band’s guidance. The original CDs were issued during the dark years of CD sound, and with swift shifts in volume and particularly intricate parts, suffered horribly for it. Such defects have been reconciled. While the band wanted the actual CDs to contain the original albums (their version of “Paint It Black” that A&M added to their Crazy Rhythms CD has been omitted), each contains a download code for additional tracks. For the debut this includes the single version of “Fa-Ce-La,” as well as a couple demos and a rare live run through “I Wanna Sleep in Your Arms.” For The Good Earth, only three tracks are added: their covers of “She Said, She Said” and “Sedan Delivery” (from the No One Knows EP) and a live take of “Slipping (Into Something).” But more than anything, it’s just having these records back in circulation that is, well, a dream.