Spring Arts Guide: The Feelies Get Perpetually Nervous All Over Again

Plus CSS, Adele, and other spring music picks

Some people pick up guitars and want to be rock stars. Other people pick up guitars because playing music is a cooler hobby than collecting toy trains. For more than three decades, the Feelies have been the ultimate hobbyist band. At every step—from the 1978 Village Voice story that declared the Haledon, New Jersey–based group to be “the best underground band in New York,” to their 1986 cameo in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, to their recent return as indie icons—the Feelies haven’t just eluded the golden chalice of fame, they’ve shuffled indifferently past it.

“We’ve never been a band that operated with a sense of it being a career,” lead guitarist and vocalist Glenn Mercer says from his home in North Haledon. “We never made particular career moves. The momentum is something we really don’t control. We’re aware of it. We feel the momentum and kind of ride along on that.”

“Momentum” is a useful concept when considering the Feelies. Whether it’s the self-descriptive title track of their 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms or the insistent drone of “Should Be Gone,” from their recently released disc Here Before, Feelies songs have a sense of perpetual motion. Rhythm guitarist Bill Million’s frenetic strum, Brenda Sauter’s skipping bass, and the fraternal-twinned percussion of Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman click together like a finely tuned speeding locomotive, which has to be physically braked to stop. All the weight of narrative lies on Mercer’s Lou Reed–esque monotone and, mostly, his guitar—worried, seeking, howling, hushed. Everything stops. Until it starts again.

So, too, the Feelies’ history. Formed by Million, Mercer, and Weckerman as a suburban riposte to the New York art-noise of the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, and Television, the Feelies quickly rose to the top of the club pile. English label Stiff signed the then-four-piece, with Anton Fier on drums. But the band found even that stalwart punk franchise to be too mercenary. The Feelies became notoriously enigmatic, playing only on holidays, if at all. Or they’d play under other names, with varying lineups: the Willies, Yung Wu, the Trypes.

The rise of an American indie scene in the mid-’80s gave the Feelies new life and members (Demeski and Sauter, with Weckerman back). R.E.M.’s Peter Buck co-produced 1986’s The Good Earth, a more pastoral album than the New Wave Rhythms. The Feelies became positively prolific, releasing Only Life in 1988 and Time for a Witness in 1991. Demme crowed that “the Feelies all had finally quit their day jobs.”

He spoke too soon. In 1992, Million abruptly moved to Florida.

“He had a good job offer he couldn’t really pass up,” Mercer says. “We found out about it after the fact. It was a bit of a shock.”

The Feelies entered a 16-year ebb. Weckerman and Mercer played in Wake Ooloo, Demeski co-formed Luna, and Sauter played in Wild Carnations. Then, once again, with indie rock waxing anew and old-school postpunk bands like Gang of Four and Mission of Burma finding fresh audiences for their intricate, jagged guitar opuses, the perpetual nervousness machine started rolling. The Feelies sent each other tapes. They rehearsed. They played at Battery Park on July 4, 2008—yes, a holiday. This spring, they play the Bell House on May 13.

The Feelies recorded Here Before at Hoboken’s Water Music. With titles like koans—“Again Today,” “Time Is Right”—the tracks are mellowed, almost meditative. “The more time passes, the more you have to reflect on,” says Mercer sagely. “As you’re moving forward, you look back as well.”

Jangling guitars and a high-hat wash provide the base of the Feelies’ dense but simple-sounding arrangements. “We’ve always had definite ideas about the production, how we wanted to sound. We wanted it to have a certain clarity, but also for it to have a certain depth to it as well. So that you could hear things initially and later on discover other parts that were there.”

Million still lives in Florida; the band isn’t giving up their day jobs again. They rehearse sporadically, tentatively—the Feelies are affirmed spare-timers. Mercer concedes that if there’s an album after Here Before, it will take years. What’s the hurry?

The Feelies, May 13, the Bell House, 149 7th Street, Brooklyn, thebellhouseny.com

Spring Music Picks

The Hold Steady
April 8
The Hold Steady is a bar band the way the E Street Band is a bar band—i.e., those are roots that Brooklyn’s finest have moved way beyond. Last year, Craig Finn, the Hold’s Boss, described the band as “Led Zeppelin meets Microsoft Office.” With quips like that, who needs critics? Terminal 5, 610 West 56th Street, terminal5nyc.com

TV on the Radio
April 13B Speaking of funny lines, TV on the Radio founder Dave Sitek recently described the record industry as being run by pedophiles looking for the next ringtone. Sure, he’s peeing in his own bath. Come on in, the water’s warm. The molesters at Interscope release the new album Nine Types of Light the day before this show. Advance track “Will Do,” streaming now on a MacBook near you, makes an awesome ringtone. Better than Radiohead? Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Avenue, radiocity.com

PJ Harvey
April 19 and 20
With her studious attention to genre and history, Polly Jean Harvey is a formalist. Protest songs are not her usual form. Still, she applies her prodigious musicological skills to chilling anthems of war and country on Let England Shake, pushing her voice—what a soprano!—and compositional talent to new levels. But lyrically, she’s no Billy Bragg. Terminal 5, 610 West 56th Street, terminal5nyc.com

The Raveonettes
April 20 and 21
Imagine Jesus and Mary Chain, unplugged, with Hope Sandoval on vocals. On new album Raven in the Grave, the Danish duo drop the drum boom from their shimmering, echoing wall of goth, making them sound sadder than ever on songs about evil seeds and the summer moon. Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, musichallofwilliamsburg.com

Atmosphere
April 26
OK, so they go for the tear-jerking cute-pet trick on their new video, “Just for Show.” Hey, I’ve felt like that retriever. Atmosphere is one of the smartest hip-hop groups ever to hail from Minneapolis, and then some. On the tour for new album The Family Sign, rapper Slug and producer Ant will be joined by a guitarist and keyboardist, plus Rhymesayers labelmates Blueprint, Grieves with Budo, Sab the Artist and DJ Abilities. Terminal 5, 610 West 56th Street, terminal5nyc.com

Femi Kuti (and the Positive Force)
April 27
The son of Nigerian musical legend Fela blows a mean sax and puts on a feverishly sweat-inducing show of his own. If you’ve only seen the Broadway simulacrum of Afrobeat, here’s your chance to experience the real thing. Bring your dancing shoes. Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, musichallofwilliamsburg.com

CSS
May 11 and May 12
CSS’s name puns a computer-geek term and the Portuguese phrase for being sexy. Accordingly, Sao Pãulo’s answer to electroclash use both girl power and social media to spread their just-wanna-have-fun dance pop. Third album is in the works. May 11, Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, websterhall.com; May 12, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, musichallofwilliamsburg.com

Elvis Costello and the Imposters
May 18 and May 22–23
The Spectacular Spinning Songbook is the stuff of musical legend. In the 25 years since he last trotted out the much-loved wheel, Costello has added quite a few pages to that book. Lucky fans will “win” one of 40 selections, and the chance to hang out onstage, in either the “Hostage to Fortune Go-Go Cage” or the “Society Lounge,” to hear it performed. Elvis doesn’t need a gimmick, but it’s a good one. May 18, Wellmont Theatre, 5 Seymour Street, Montclair, New Jersey, wellmonttheatre.com; May 22 and 23, Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, beacontheatre.com

Adele
May 19
What sophomore slump? Adele’s second album is so nigh unto perfect in its husky, throbbing, old-fashioned soul, it’s hard to believe the English singer is merely, as the album title says, 21. Yes, she’s the heiress apparent to Van Morrison and Dusty Springfield—she even earns the comparison that all the American divas overshoot, Aretha. With a touch of Natalie Maines. Album of the year? Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, beacontheatre.com

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