Another Brave New World

Glenn Mercer's solo debut could be a Feelies reunion. He's just too nice to make it one.

Though we may be the lone strangers on this one, companionless contrarians careless of the compulsory crit-pick of Crazy Rhythms, likely the only thing writer Rick Moody and I have in common is our commitment of needle to the Feelies' Good Earth vinyl over a thousand times apiece. Easy.

This, the band's second album–released in 1986, a good half-dozen years after their debut, Crazy Rhythms–served as the soundtrack to Moody's own novelistic debut, 1992's Garden State. (No, not that Garden State. This Garden State is set in Hoboken and bereft of anyone remotely resembling Natalie Portman.) Like the book Moody wrote while playing it over and over and over, the Feelies' sophomore effortthanks to vocals so buried they might've reached Chinareeks of the now-removed warehouse-industrial side of Ol' Blue Eyes' hometown. Mellifluous, yet murky. As if singing a sprightly shadow. The album (nominally co-produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck) not only bridged the gap from the Velvet Underground to college radio, it also paved the way for Hoboken geek rock (They Might Be Giants, Yo La Tengo, etc.). And while I'm not suggesting this is a good thing, the multi-platinum equation that was the Counting Crows' August and Everything After is near-equal parts Van Morrison (vocals) and the Feelies (music).

Fittingly then, The Good Earth is also the one record accountable for the Feelies' classification as a "Hoboken band." A mislabeling, it seemsdamn near all of them, both past and present, hail from Haledon, a good four stops up New Jersey Transit's Main Line and much closer to William Carlos Williams's Paterson than any citified suit and tied.

Glenn's aim, in case you were wondering, is still true
photo: G. Keyser
Glenn's aim, in case you were wondering, is still true

True, Hoboken provides the entire setting for at least one Feelies video (the Jonathan Demmedirected "Away"); Coyote, the Twin Tone Records subsidiary that unleashed The Good Earth upon the world, received its mail on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. As didand doesthe club Maxwell's, the band's musical epicenter. But, says former Feelies frontman Glenn Mercer, "I never lived here."

And yet here we are: Not only in Hoboken, butafter a well-paced and purposefully strode mile from the train station, with Mercer in the leadat Maxwell's, the site not only of the Feelies' last-ever gig, but of Mercer's next one. For, later this month, he will publicly provide aural glimpses into his very first solo album, Wheels in Motion. Which, like The Good Earth, offers strummed guitars detailed with picked-through chords, dramatically plodding bass licks, rudimentary percussion (obligatory shout-out to Mo Tucker), and long, lethargic vocal lines delivered so slowly and so obliquely ("Anything at all/Going to be mine/Everything we are/Running out of time," suggests the title track's chorus) that any baritoned Southerner could comfortably sing along.

For this singular effort, the professorial indie rocker (think My Aim Is True–era Elvis with a mortgage) prevailed on past bandmates: all four former Feelies drummers and bassist Brenda Sauter (whose group Wild Carnation will open Mercer's show). "I think, ultimately, the reason I play music is to connect with people," Mercer says. "All of my friends are musicians. That's how I've made all my friends, really. And kept them. And kept playing."

Damn right. You'd need some overly fulsome flow chart to track all the amalgamated Feelies associations in which Mercer has participated. Though personnel changed frequently, for convenience's sake let's focus on the Good Earth–era Feelies: Sauter on bass, Stanley Demeski on drums, Dave Weckerman on percussion, and Mercer, along with longtime songwriting partner Bill Million, playing the guitars and singing. Besides which, Mercer has always busied himself with well-nigh unquantifiable side projects with one or more of his Feelies friends, before (the Out Kids, the Trypes, the Willies), after (Wake Ooloo, True Wheel, Sunburst, East of Venus), and even during (Yung Wu) his primary band's best run.

"I try to keep all of my musical relationships, you know, going," he says.

No shit.

But after one of alt-rock's longest games of musical chairs ever, it is the Feelies who are left standing, and largely left out. All four of the band's discs (after Good Earth came 1988's Only Life and 1991's Time for a Witness) are out of print, and whatever current visibility the band enjoys (not a word often utilized in a Feelies piece) comes from exquisite memories and a Volvo ad that utilizes Good Earth's "Let's Go." (Say what you will about buried vocals costing radio airplay, it does result in a respectable amount of commercials and soundtrack work.)

So, with seemingly every other group with even a taste of college-rock cool (the Pixies, Bad Brains, Dinosaur Jr., the Jesus and Mary Chain, etc.) now regrouping, the time seems more than right for a reunion. And with Mercer's Wheels in Motion packed with guest Feelies literally picking up where his former band left off, we're really and truly almost there. And if it looks like the Feelies (check), sounds like the Feelies (absolutely), and plays where the Feelies used to play (thank you, sir, may I have another?), it must be the Feelies, right?

Well, no. Not so much.

For, even though most of us would cheerfully cash the chip that provided our claim to fame (assuming we ever had one), Mercer defers to something akin to that which kept him playing in all those many bands: friendship. "I wanted it to be a Feelies record," he says. "All along I would sing a background part and think, 'Man, it sounds like Bill.' It was eerie."

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