The Feelies – The Good Earth

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Six years separated the first two Feelies albums. Anton Fier and Keith DeNunzio both left the band and Bill Million and Glenn Mercer basically fucked around New York for a few years, making music in various guises. In 1985, they reformed with Dave Weckerman back in the fold and new members Brenda Sauter on bass and Stanley Demeski on drums. This five piece has been the Feelies ever since. This was the last of the core Feelies albums I bought, waiting for the 2009 reissue (the original had been released on the small Coyote Records imprint and it was impossible to find).

What I Think of This Album

Liberated from any momentum generated by Crazy Rhythms, and with a new perspective after years of exploring different approaches via their various side projects (some with new members Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski and returning original compatriot Dave Weckerman), the Feelies returned with the more sedate The Good Earth, a title that itself gives off bucolic vibes.

While some have attributed the change in sound to producer Peter Buck’s (REM) presence, he has denied playing much of any role beyond cheerleader. And it’s difficult to believe that Mercer and Million were somehow cajoled into doing something they didn’t want to. There are similarities to the driving sound of the debut, even if this album is much calmer. 

That said, this isn’t slowcore. There are plenty of electric guitars and Mercer still plays biting leads – check out the solo on “On the Roof.” If anything, there is a greater sense of steady propulsion and thrumming hypnotism on The Good Earth. Whereas the band communicated unease and tension on the debut, here they sound confident and determined.

Every track is excellent, but Demeski does a particularly impressive job on tracks like “The Last Roundup,” “Two Rooms,” and “Tomorrow Today.” “Let’s Go” is an invitation no one with a heart(beat) could turn down. The jangle of “The High Road” is immensely appealing. The twin guitar work on “Two Rooms” is fascinating. Closer “Slow Down” is a masterpiece of mood and tautness.

“Slipping (Into Something)” is an enjoyable slab of Velvet Underground homage while also being perhaps the least interesting song on the album. The atmospherics of “When Company Comes” sound like Ennio Morricone got his hands on, well, I guess the Velvet Underground. It is a lovely lovely lovely and meticulously crafted song – listen for the dog barking at roughly :40.

Note:  the reissue comes in a cardboard sleeve of non-standard size, which annoys me. It also comes with a little business card that allows you to download extra tracks (two covers (Beatles and Neil Young) and a live version of “Slipping”) – apparently the band wanted the actual album to stand alone. I have not downloaded the tracks, only because I don’t like “owning” music in purely digital form. I need a physical medium.

The Best Thing About This Album

Stanley Demeski is the absolute MVP on this.

Release Date

1986

The Cover Art

While I don’t feel strongly about it, I agree that this is probably the perfect image (with coloring) to accompany this album.

The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

The Feelies are low key one of my favorite bands. I wish they were easier to see, but you basically have to live in the New York area nowadays. I was lucky enough to see them in Chicago some years ago. I also saw side project Wake Oolo when I lived in New York (they opened for Luna), but I did not really appreciate the significance at the time. The core of the Feelies – percussionist Dave Weckerman and guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer – began playing together in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976. Lineup changes ensued and by the time of 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, bassist Keith DeNunzio (also known as Keith Clayton) had joined as had Anton Fier on drums (it is not clear what happened to Weckerman during this period, who otherwise has been a long time member).

What I Think of This Album

I don’t really believe in Top Ten Albums but fuck it, this is a Top Ten Album for me. It is odd and unsettling and comforting and comfortable and vibrant and vibratory and playful and inventive and impressive as fuck.

The title telegraphs the most obvious feature of the music, which is the polyrhythms that dominate the sound. Anton Fier is the main percussionist, but his efforts are augmented by the other three band members, who make contributions on exotic instruments like sandpaper, shoes, can, and coat rack (and also timbales, shaker, claves, castanets, maracas, temple blocks, cowbell, and extra snare and tom-toms). Keeping up with these darting and dizzying beats is a rapturous and disorienting experience, which I highly recommend.

The song titles also betray the band’s sensibilities:  “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness,” Raised Eyebrows,” and “Forces at Work.”  The Feelies share some DNA with Wire, in that both aim to strip things down to their essential parts. But whereas Wire exuded a sense of danger and mischief, the Feelies communicate anxiety and fatalism. And while Wire kept things spare in the most direct way, the Feelies one up them by creating a skeletal sound despite layering multiple guitar parts and percussion. Also, while perhaps less impish than Wire, the Feelies have a sense of humor, because no one is overdubbing sandpaper and coat rack without having some fun. Indeed, it is entirely possible this whole thing is a joke. While later albums built on this sound, the band never again engaged in this kind of perverse and claustrophobic minimalism.

The vocals owe a debt to Lou Reed, and the twin guitars are the offspring that Television and the Velvet Underground left to fend for themselves at the orphanage. Some songs approach pop while others simply find grace in repetitiveness and inflection. 

It’s all too easy – and liberating – to get lost in the beat of “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness,” which comes across like Jonathan Richman having sleep terrors. The unexpectedly delightful “Fa Cé-La” is insouciant and playful, with curlique guitar and a descending bass riff. Like “Perpetual Nervousness,” the slow build of “Loveless Love” creates dark tension that Million and Mercer amplify with their wiry guitar work; while Fier pounds away, the two cast spells around each other in a competition to see who will suffer a psychotic break first. 

The seven minute epic “Forces At Work” also starts atmospherically with a tremolo pulse before a motorik-type beat comes in and then a mesh of guitars is thrown in your face. Mercer adds some lead at points thereafter, seemingly without reason. The lyrics consist mostly of overlapping chants and eventually devolve into wordless vocalizations. This is basically “Sister Ray” but less artsy and more nerdy. It is appropriately the centerpiece of the album.

“Original Love” is probably the closest thing to a traditional song, albeit a smokily nihilistic one that would have made Ian Curtis dance dance dance dance dance to the radio. Speaking of icons, the Feelies have no compunction about making the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” their own. It’s an exhilarating ride, as if there was an actual capuchin in charge of the tempo. And, the coat rack really does sound great on it. “Moscow Nights” is a convoluted exploration of rhythm with some fantastic lead work courtesy of Mercer.

Jesus fuck, the drum hits on “Raised Eyebrows” stir my soul in the way I imagine love might one day. There is a credit here for “spasmodic drum” (as well as “anchor drum” and “random tom-toms” in addition to plain old “drum kit”). The lead part is fantastic, the staticky rhythm guitar is great, the jangle jangles like no one’s business, and there is even a fun vocal melody. This is one of my favorite Feelies songs ever.

There are actual lyrics to the title track, which really pulls out all the stops and barrels to the end of the album with aplomb. What a way to end an album. What a way to end THIS album. 

My copy is the 1990 A&M release, which tacks on a cover of “Paint It Black,” with the stable post-Crazy Rhythms lineup, and it really does sound like a completely different band. It’s cool to have but it feels very out of place on the disc, especially when “Crazy Rhythms” is the perfect closer.

By the way, I love credits like “left guitar” (Million) and “right guitar” (Mercer).

Fier later played with Bob Mould and Matthew Sweet, and was a member of the Golden Palominos. He died in 2022 via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

The Best Thing About This Album

Everything. It’s a classic and unimprovable in every way.

Release Date

February, 1980

The Cover Art

Like the album itself, there is something a little bit off about this art. Which is what draws you in. I do like the text at the top. I would accuse Weezer of having ripped this off for their debut, but I don’t think Weezer is cool enough to listen to the Feelies (well, probably Matt Sharp is). I can’t say for sure who is who, but I am relatively confident that Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are the center figures (Mercer the one with the curly hair). Anton Fier is for certain the guy on the left.

The Features – Some Kind of Salvation

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The Features fell on hard times pretty quickly. After 2004’s excellent Exhibit A, they were dropped by Universal and self-released second album Some Kind of Salvation did not emerge until 2008. In the interim, Parrish Yaw left the band and they added keyboardist Mark Bond. They eventually signed onto the label run by Kings of Leon, which rereleased SKOS in 2009. Since then, they have released three more albums but have been quiet since 2016. It’s a sad story for a band with so much promise. I haven’t checked out the later albums, mostly because they are hard to find. But just because everyone else moved on doesn’t mean that I had to. I’m sorry, the Features. I’ll do better by you.

What I Think of This Album

This album sort of betrays the difficulties the band faced after the delight that was Exhibit A and the putative success story that saw them rise from Sparta, Tennessee onto the roster of Universal. Perhaps it’s coincidental but song titles like “Off Track,” “Still Lost,” “Foundation’s Cracked,” “The Drawing Board.” The Gates of Hell,” and “Whatever Gets You By” more than hint at unhappiness. More to the point, the band also sounds like they’re working more and having fun less. This is a far less joyful album than the debut, even if the foursome try to mask it. 

If you come into the album clean, though, you still end up with a strong set of tunes, often presented in an original manner. The sea shanty feel of “Whatever Gets You By” quickly morphs into the hard R&B stomper “The Drawing Board.” I don’t care for “GMF (Genetically Modified Fable)” but it has an interesting new wave sound. Even more compelling is the bleepy “Concrete,” which could’ve easily been a Depeche Mode deep cut from 1987. And it’s hard to deny the appeal of anthemic “Off Track” and powerful closer “All I Ask.”

Sometimes there are similarities to the vocals of Hamilton Leithouser (the Walkmen) but the sound here is friendlier and much less abrasive. To that end, the music sometimes brings to mind Spoon, especially on “Foundation’s Cracked,” “Wooden Heart,” and “The Temporary Blues.”  

Newcomer Mark Bond does a great job on the keyboards, and bassist Roger Dabbs shines throughout. Production was handled in part by Jaquire King (Tom Waits, Modest Mouse, Clinic).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Temporary Blues” is pretty fucking great!

Release Date

June, 2008 (self-release)

The Cover Art

The vegetables kind of freak me out. I’m assuming the art reflects the song titles:  “GMF,” “Lions,” and “Baby’s Hammer.” There is no good reason for that. I can’t tell if I have the self-released version or the subsequent version.

The Features – Exhibit A

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

The Features (at least at the time of this album) boasted some truly excellent band member names:  Parrish Yaw, Rollum Haas, Roger Dabbs, and along for the ride, Matt Pelham. Also cool – they were from Sparta, Tennessee. Just a bunch of bored rural kids who found purpose in music. Dabbs, Yaw, and Pelham went to middle school together in Sparta. Dabbs and Pelham started a band and both eventually went to college in Murfreesboro; Yaw attended college in nearby Cookeville and soon after joined the band. A few personnel moves later found Hass taking over drum duties in 1998. They all dropped out of school and recorded and toured and were signed to Universal within a few years. Exhibit A came out in 2004.

What I Think of This Album

Matt Pelham sings like he is a hair’s breadth away from absolutely losing his shit. Somehow he rides this wave of intensity without ever losing his balance. Frankly, it would be a lot less interesting if he just gave over and started screaming; it is much more compelling to listen to his impassioned delivery and marvel at how it hints at a monumental effort to keep it together. What makes it all the more perverse is that the half-crazed delivery is often in the service of songs of surprisingly sentimentality:  “The Way It’s Meant to Be” is a song of paternal devotion to an infant; “The Idea of Growing Old” foretells the simple satisfaction of entering dotage with a partner. 

You know what I love? I love a song about loving music. Granted, I can’t think of an example right now, but I am sure they exist and that I own some of them. “Blow It Out” brims with joy as Pelham cleverly recounts how listening to vinyl replenishes his soul. I get it, Matt. “Here I found that I’m alright.”

Just as critical to the band’s sound as Pelham’s vocals is the keyboard work of Yaw. The songs are sturdy and melodic but Yaw’s lines somehow both soften the tunes and also add an otherworldly atmosphere that elevate them above even very good garage rock. 

I can’t say that every track is a standout but many are, including the borderline scary “Exorcising Demons” (sort of like Clinic if they wore trucker caps instead of hospital scrubs), the self-parody of “Me & the Skirts,” the ambiguously menacing but also romantic title track, and the closer, “Circus.” The rest are merely somewhere from good to very good. Overall, though, this is a goddamn blast to listen to.

Speaking of fun names, the main producer was Craig Krampf (who has an oddly mainstream resumé) and Mike McCarthy, who has worked with Spoon and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Blow It Out” is one of my favorite songs ever.

Release Date

September, 2004

The Cover Art

Average. Sort of messy but at least it’s colorful (I like the blue).

The Fastbacks – Answer the Phone, Dummy

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I saw either the Young Fresh Fellows or the Minus 5 (it can be hard to tell them apart) some years back and it was the first time I got to see Kurt Bloch play guitar live. So it was to my great disappointment that, now that I live in the PNW and have increased my chances of seeing Bloch performances, I learned that he has taken over the drum throne for the YFF and has relinquished guitar duties.

What I Think of This Album

There is nothing wrong with this Sub Pop album, and there is a lot right with it. But it doesn’t really cohere very well, and it somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Every traditional element is there, including a lengthy and impressive cast of drummers, to say nothing of guest vocals from the late great Kim Shattuck (the Muffs) and the very evil Ken Stringfellow (though no one knew it then, I guess), but – and it is shocking to say this about a band that is so fun and lively – it all lacks personality. That said, it is definitely worth a listen and individual songs will win you over.

Bloch delivers another set of excellent songs, including dynamic “Back to Nowhere,” the galloping but despondent “I’m Cold,” “On Your Hands,” surprisingly sophisticated and power-poppy “Meet the Author,” and “On the Wall.” Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick sing with enthusiasm and acid-tinged sweetness, and making their critical contributions on guitar and bass. And Bloch’s guitar work shines once again, sometimes intricate and pretty and other times blistering and raw; the workout on “Went for a Swim” is particularly impressive and the chunky riffing on “I Found the Star” will get your head bopping.

If I am being honest, wonderful Kim Shattuck does not really add much to “Old Address of the Unknown.”

Six different individuals split time behind the kit:  Nate Johnson and Rusty Willoughby from Flop; Dan Peters of Mudhoney; Mike Musberger on loan courtesy of the Posies; Jason Finn (Presidents of the United States of America); and John Moen, later of the Decembrists.

The Best Thing About This Album

Bloch’s songwriting

Release Date

1994

The Cover Art

This ungainly collage does nothing for me, though I am somewhat intrigued by the tropical-colored telephone handset. So I guess it does something for me.

The Fastbacks – Zücker

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

As far as I can remember, I only had one real chance to see the Fastbacks live and that was in the early ‘90s in Washington, D.C. I didn’t see them and now it’s too late. How many times has that happened to me? Lots. Have I learned my lesson? No. It still happens.

What I Think of This Album

This is the part where I inform you that zücker is German for sugar, and tell you how it is an appropriate title for this energetic pop-punk masterpiece. Joined by Rusty Willoughby of Flop on drums (though Willoughby plays the guitar in Flop), the Fastbacks power their way through thirteen instant classics and one Bee Gees cover on this Sub Pop release. Do I need to check out ‘60s Bee Gees? Fuck me.

Kurt Bloch is all over the place on this album, inserting his ‘70s hard rock influenced leads into his melodic tunes, which ease off the punk somewhat (but not completely) this time around but are nonetheless so forceful and speedy that you barely notice the softer edge. Presumably he plays the keyboards that are more than a little present, though there is no credit in the liner notes. Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo turn in their best vocal performances to date, notably on spooky ballad “When I’m Old” and girl-group adjacent number “They Don’t Care,” which also features some of my favorite lead guitar lines on this album. Also of note is spiky instrumental “Bill Collector,” on which Bloch shows off his moves.

PNW mainstay Conrad Uno co-engineered the album, which was only the third full-length studio release for the band (the first coming in 1987), even though they formed in the late ’70s. It was also their first studio album for Sub Pop.

The Best Thing About This Album

Bloch’s songwriting and guitar playing.

Release Date

January, 1993

The Cover Art

I like the colors. The rest isn’t terrible, and I sort of appreciate the weirdness of it – if I am being honest, it is a memorable image, so maybe it did its job? – but it is far from a favorite.

The Fastbacks – The Question Is No

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

It is entirely possible that the Fastbacks are the most punk band not only in my collection, but the country. Keep your Fear, your Fugazi, your Dead Kennedys. They are all more professional, polished, and popular than the Fastbacks, who formed in 1979 and didn’t release their first album until 1987 (and even that one was cobbled together from a series of sessions, only one of which took place in an actual recording studio), and who never have had a permanent drummer. High school friends Lulu Gargiulo, Kim Warnick, and Kurt Bloch formed and essentially remained the Seattle band until 2001 (or maybe 2002, who knows? See? Punk as fuck). At first, Bloch drummed, Warnick played bass, and Gargiulo was the guitarist while a friend handled vocals. Quickly trimmed down to a trio, Bloch took over on guitar and Warnick grabbed the mic and they scraped by with random drummers thereafter. Those drummers have included two members of Flop, Mike Musberger of the Posies, Richard Stuverud (who has been associated with members of Pearl Jam), Tad Hutchinson from the Young Fresh Fellows – another band Bloch is in, Mudhoney’s own Dan Peters, and of course, future Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan. The alternative/grunge/Seattle boom in the ‘90s resulted in the Fastbacks opening for Pearl Jam on an international tour, but of course, that didn’t translate to fame and fortune.

What I Think of This Album

The Question Is No is a delightful collection of singles, compilation tracks, and unreleased songs on Sub Pop featuring five drummers (including, yes, Duff) and covering twelve years of the band’s history. Seven tracks are from 1980-88 and the other six are from the productive-by-comparison era of 1991-92, though the newer songs are presented first (mostly – per the liner notes, this was a decision intended as an explicit “fuck you” to people like me who want a strict timeline).

Displaying a remarkable consistency despite the years and the drummers, the Fastbacks play hooky, speedy, fuzzy poppish punk descended from the Ramones and akin to a less tortured Buzzcocks. Kurt Bloch is a triple-threat, writing engagingly catchy melodies, playing tough lead guitar that is actually more Cheap Trick than anything else, and offering up lyrics that are thoughtful and intelligent. For their part, Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick sweeten and soften things up with their lively vocals, adding a girl-group element to the sound.

Warnick worked at SubPop and was in Visqueen with Rachel Flotard (Neko Case) in the early 2000s. Her husband for some period of time was Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. Gargiulo is a cinematographer and filmmaker.

The Best Thing About This Album

Um, Duff. Okay, not really, but almost. “Lose” is a fantastic fucking song, with the brilliantly titled “Don’t Eat That It’s Poison” nipping at its heels.

Release Date

June, 1992

The Cover Art

Dumb, but my main objection is that a drummer is in the pic. Also, I think this cover was just repurposed from the The Answer Is You release photo shoot. That’s punk.

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