There’s no rule against bands re-forming years or even decades after their heyday, nor any script detailing how they should go about it. Inspiration can come in many forms and at any time—when you’re 22 or when you’re 52, when you’re sleeping on couches or when you’re paying off a house. It’s not inconceivable—or particularly damning—that artists might be motivated by money or emboldened by the acclaim of a younger generation only just discovering their back catalog, so long as there’s a point and the music’s good. Or at least not embarrassing.
The past few years are littered with albums that fans of Big Star, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls might rather ignore, but there are always exceptions to the rule—surprising albums that wreck a perfectly good generalization. Dinosaur Jr’s pair of comeback albums stand alongside, and in some cases even exceed, their most popular albums, and Majesty Shredding, the first Superchunk album in more than a decade, ably recaptured the caustic bounce of their early ‘90s material.
Re-enter the Feelies, the favorite sons—and daughter—of Haledon, New Jersey, who re-formed three years ago at the behest of Sonic Youth and who are now releasing their hiatus-ending record. It’s titled, aptly enough, Here Before, and while it’s not indispensible, it sounds like a sturdy continuation of their sound rather than a re-creation of some rock-historical trend.
In 1980, the Feelies’ debut, (also) aptly titled Crazy Rhythms, introduced a feisty jangle that linked the strident noise of Wire and Gang of Four to the chiming riffs of R.E.M. and Translator. It was such a frantic sound, so tense and uncontrollable, that in retrospect it seems impossible they could pin it down for another album. Their follow-up, recorded with a different line-up, was necessarily calmer: musically The Good Earth was less abrasive and perhaps more accessible, but lyrically, it was just as obscure as ever, as though the songs were reluctant to surrender their meanings too quickly.
That’s the line-up that reunited in 2008, and The Good Earth is the sound the Feelies return to on Here Before. They don’t break a sweat, but that doesn’t mean they’re complacent, hesitant, or-gasp—old. Instead, the band slows the rhythms until the guitars almost drone, with Gleen Mercer’s pleasingly flat vocals floating calmly above the din, not unlike fellow New Jerseyites Yo La Tengo. These songs are more patient and more careful, emphasizing the texture between Mercer and Bob Million’s guitars, which jangle exquisitely on “Way Down” and “When You Know.” As they repeat and overlap, the guitars become hypnotic, especially on a slow, sober track like “Morning Comes,” although at times the repetition lapses into tedium.
Still, Here Before is the rare comeback album that shows no desperation, no hesitancy or rust, which only reinforces the guarded optimism of Mercer’s lyrics. Age has bolstered their introspection and turned it into something like warm nostalgia, allowing the band to make their signature sound speak of ruminative adulthood rather than defiant youth.
Who could have written such a satisfying new chapter, when the Feelies settle into being a solid pop band with a distinctive sound and a lot of good memories?