HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

26 September 2014

The Feelies - 'Only Life' (A&M)

I'm such a child of the Internet - well, actually I'm an early adopter, as it's been 21 years since my first email address, in the days of lynx and gopher, but I digress -- and I often forget about how difficult it was to access cultural content before, even before my teenage years. When I listen to the cover of 'What Goes On' which closes out the Feelies third album, Only Life, I think about how discovering the Velvet Underground in 1988 was not as easy as it is now. I'm sure those records were all in print, but they weren't necessarily available at Sam Goody or wherever kids went to buy records then; and you still had to buy them, at least, as opposed to just listening to it on YouTube or whatever. This isn't an original observation, but one that seems to affect how I listen to Only Life in 2014. In some ways it's "another album, another influence" for the Feelies - I always thought of this album as their VU-worship statement, but I'm not sure why I thought that apart from the presence of 'What Goes On'. What this really sounds like is a more polished, more accessible version of The Good Earth. It's on a major label, too, a fact which I genuinely forgot, though it sounds like it; the bigger, bolder drum sounds and soaring vocals, heard right off the bat on 'It's Only Life' and 'Too Much' , which are slightly tailored for the radio of the time (albeit college radio). It's a bit like Hüsker Dü's Warehouse compared to their earlier stuff - not bad, but not as raw and ragged. The Good Earth is a classic because it's not raw or ragged, but it's not like this either. Is it all production? The guitar solos are still sinewy and invigorating, the chord progressions are similar, and the vocals are a tad less understated than before (the 'whoa-oh's and 'away-hey's on 'Too Far Gone' and 'Away', respectively, definitely have more of a power pop feel than the wordless moans of 'When Company Comes', but there's nothing wrong with that). It's not exactly Whitesnake or whatever 1988 sounded like to everyone else; listening for the first time in years, Only Life sounds great, a solid and respectable record. 'Higher Ground', not related to the Stevie Wonder/Red Hot Chili Peppers standard, is booming and gracious. In 'Too Much', Glenn Mercer sounds a tad bit more arena-rock than usual. 'The Undertow' picks up from where 'The Last Roundup' left off, with even more vitriol; 'The Final Word' and 'Too Far Gone'  (no relation to the unreleased Neil Young tune) has some of the 1-2 punch left, sounding like a cross between the first two albums; the vocals are eerily similar to the jumpiness of  'Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness', but then the guitar solo is a smooth beast. Yeah, it's really only 'What Goes On' that makes me associate this album with the VU, and even that sounds more like the Feelies, in the usual spirit of their covers. I don't have Time For a Witness and it looks like they did a reunion album in 2011 (plus, a solo Glenn Mercer record in 2007 that is really good), so the journey ends here.

25 September 2014

The Feelies - 'No One Knows' (Coyote)

There's not much to this 12" - it's an extended single, marked on the label as 45rpm but actually 33rpm, so you don't even get better sound quality on the two Good Earth tracks, 'the High Road' and 'Slipping (Into Something)'. Well, I guess you do, as a shorter run time means it can be mastered louder, but I couldn't tell. They are great songs, and the two b-sides are both covers - the Beatles, again, with 'She Said, She Said', not quite as luxuriously reinvented as 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey' but with a nice psychedelic vibe - a thicker middle than most of the other songs from this period. 'Slipping (Into Something)' is a pretty great song, with very minimal vocals and a thick, accelerating ending that builds to an inevitable But then the kicker - a cover of Neil's 'Sedan Delivery', done in the same tossed off way as the Beatles cover. This is faithful, and the high pitched voice is even accurate, though out of character. The singing on both of these covers has an exuberance that hasn't been heard since Crazy Rhythms and that's very, very welcome - the saving grace of an otherwise unnecessary EP.

24 September 2014

The Feelies - 'The Good Earth' (Domino/Coyote)

There was quite a hiatus before this appeared and when it did, it was almost shocking - gone are the jittery rhythms and angular guitar leads, replaced by languid, open-chord strums. And I think they're a better band for it. Was it a brave choice, turning down the energy and looking for something else; or was it a crass appeal to commercial pressures, fitting into the jangly 'college rock' vibe of the late 1980s? I don't buy it that turning down and simplifying - and consciously removing your 'edge' - is a sign of selling out or lesser quality music. The Good Earth is a masterpiece, clearly one of the high water marks of American rock in the 80s and the Feelies' finest achievement. And they have the distinction of being a band that simultaneously influenced R.E.M. (with their first album) and was influenced by R.E.M. (here). Though R.E.M. is a bit of an easy comparison, just because there's arpeggios galore and a solid backbeat; I also hear traces of country standards, blues/spirituals, and of course folk. There's a cowboy vibe to 'Tomorrow Today', which utilises the new rhythm section of Brenda Sauter, Dave Weckerman and Stan Demeski to great success. 'Slipping (Into Something)' and 'Let's Go' are not too far from the songwriting of Crazy Rhythms, just using a different arrangement to the same tension and cadences. 'The Last Roundup' is the most indicative of the earlier material, probably a holdover, with lots of frantic strumming and the two percussionists used to full effect. The highlight of this record for me, and therefore of The Feelies, is 'When Company Comes', the most simple sketch of a song, built around three chords strummed and with a chorus of nearly wordless vocals, topped with some searing guitar notes. It's pure psychedelia, but like you've never heard before. I don't know why it moves me so much - maybe, when combined with the speaking voices mixed into the end and the way it comes as the last song on side one (which is always the best position for a song, in my opinion), it all amalgamates into some lost, wispy alternative Americana that I can't remember (I was six when this came out) but yearn for anyway. (hint: it never existed)

15 September 2014

The Feelies - 'Crazy Rhythms' (Stiff)

I listen to this record quite often. It somehow cuts through the familiarity that saturates so many other albums from this time; the songs have seeped deep into my cortex, with every note and tom-tom tap memorised to the point of instinct, yet it doesn't feel like I'm on a mental autopilot when listening to it. This early Feelies lineup is so different than their subsequent albums, probably due to the presence of Anton ("Andy") Fier, who left after this record. The opening cut is pretty much the roadmap - 'The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness', which explicitly lays out the nervous energy that made this early lineup so great. It's a song where only Bill Million plays any guitars, a studio assemblage for sure, and the rest of the band is on various percussion. Larks Tongues in Aspic this is not; I wish I could say layered guitars were influenced by Glenn Branca, but I doubt it; it's jittery, tight and coherent, but succinct and still a pop song. The more catchy songs, like 'Crazy Rhythms' and 'Moscow Nights', could be punk thrashers with different production and a different singer. In the voices of Million and Glenn Mercer, it's comes off as some hybrid of R.E.M. and Mission of Burma (both of whom the Feelies pre-date). It's all good, though. Nothing stays beyond its welcome, even the seven minute 'Forces at Work'; when the contrapuntal ascending and descending guitar lines break out at the end of 'Loveless Love', it fades out before it starts to be show-offy. This is a total guitar album; 'Forces at Work' is epic in the way it crescendos, yet it's never jerkoff Yngvie-style stylings - the players aren't necessarily virtuosos on the fretboards, but they have a masterful way of assembling things. The vibe of Crazy Rhythms is fun and hyper without being overly aggressive, and the fashion of the members from the cover and liner photos is so proto-indie chic it would be a cliché if this wasn't 1980. The Beatles cover is just in line with the rest of it, and it doesn't feel silly or gimmicky. This is a great band and this is a great debut, and it's nice that they change gears so abruptly on their next album (which took six years to come out!).  I don't have a bad thing to say here, nor anything insightful either; I feel like I've just been describing this record by pointing out how balanced it is and what it is not, more than what it is. I'll tell you this - I throw on 'Moscow Nights' or 'Crazy Rhythms' some time just when I want to jump around and play a weird sort of air guitar, and I'm glad no one sees me doing so.

11 September 2014

Faust - 'IV' (Virgin)

The Nurse With Wound list taught us that Faust was not so singular; there were plenty of demented Euro-freaks throughout the entire wonderful 1970s making music that defied logic or categorisation. What made Faust so special was their impact - as a high-profile act, with records on Virgin and singing in English, their brand of madness could seep into a larger market than the so-called 'underground'. IV is really where you hear that - at times their most accessible record, with plaintive ballads such as 'Jennifer', and pop-skews like 'The Sad Skinhead' (which actually makes me think of the Homosexuals and their deconstructed song-based genius), but also opening with the 12-minute blast of 'Krautrock'. Tongue-in-cheek title aside, this track more or less invented the 'ecstatic drone' genre, or whatever you would call artists twenty-plus years later such as Skullflower, Total, Sunroof, Double Leopards, etc. It's not like any of the other dark, dense jams of its time apart from maybe some Japanese artists - the horizontality is more akin to minimalist composition, but the edges are poking out everywhere, nothing sanded down. It's somehow an entirely different beast than 'Sister Ray', too; there's less affect, if that makes any sense; it's muddy and fuzzy and endlessly replayable. The rest of the record is no slouch - 'Giggy Smile' is a jam of jams, and 'It's a Bit of a Pain' is a beautiful way to go out.  The rock parts have a warm, wooly recording and when there's electronic fuckery ('Picnic on a Frozen River') it sounds as soft and encompassing as the glowing guitar amps. If this is a summation of the first three records' experiments, so be it; IV is as cohesive and complete for Faust as Led Zeppelin's fourth record is to them. Why we don't have posters of this hanging in university dorms instead is a true shame. And this is it, really - the end of Faust proper. I know there's the Munich and Elsewhere record and the Tony Conrad collab and then the 90s and beyond, but this was the end of Faust in the 70s; four perfect albums and then they disappeared. As much as I love Rien and some of the later stuff, you can't help but wonder what the legacy would be if they had stayed defunct. There's always been something occult about Faust, even if they were actually more like absurd art-school kids in person (as I suspect); the word 'occult' does come from 'occluded' so maybe that's how it should have stayed.

10 September 2014

The Faust Tapes (Recommended)

This is a record that became legendary partially because of it's collage-like assemblage, and partially because it marketed for dirt cheap in its original release. This reissue has a nice little plastic bag cover and keeps the cheap feel with kinda thin vinyl, but I'm surprised Recommended didn't make something sturdier, cause I know this wasn't 49p when new. But the sound is great, and the record makes as much of an impact with me now as it did when I first heard it, even if the sounds are familiar. Some CD reissues of this apparently included a track listing, which seems antithetical to The Faust Tapes. One of the paradoxes is that while a "collage" (though that is somewhat overstated, I think), I always end up listening to it straight through (as my old CD version had it all as one track, I think). The few proper songs jump out; the 'J'ai mal aux dents' one is iconic, the only long bit on the record, and it has this Naked City-esque breakdown in the middle that sounds a bit clichéd now but not a trace in '73, I'm sure (and has some great tape splicing sounds as well). The jammy bits make you forget that Faust were at their hearts primitive surrealists, not drugged-out psychonauts; well, they probably ingested their fair share, but when you listen to the broken drumbeats and pseudo-funk breakdowns, it's a long way from the searing, layered echoes of the Cosmic Jokers. Maybe this was nothing more than an EP of songs extended into something larger by splicing together outtakes and jams, but that's the point - The Faust Tapes is a record to celebrate the in-between bits as much as the more constructed product. Those who celebrate this as one of Faust's finest achievements probably don't cite any single song as the high water mark, but the cohesive whole. This is the album as a statement itself, but in a totally different manner than Sgt. Pepper's