Off the Bench: After a 20-year hiatus, The Feelies are back.
Off the Bench: After a 20-year hiatus, The Feelies are back.

The Feelies are, arguably, the least hurried band in the history of rock. The band formed in 1976 in suburban Haledon, N.J. The Village Voice designated them the “The Best Underground Band in New York” in 1978, but they didn’t release their debut, Crazy Rhythms, until 1980. The band members remained active, if unfocused, in the following years, with various combinations of personnel playing in bands like The Trypes, Yung Wu, and the Willies (featured briefly in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild). Six years after the release of their jittery desert-island debut, The Feelies released their follow-up, the bucolic The Good Earth, which established the jangle-pop template the band employs to this day.

It’s no surprise, then, that The Feelies waited 20 years after their last album, Time for a Witness (1991), to release their latest, Here Before. Luckily, it’s a more-than-solid effort that mostly retains their signature sound: coruscating guitars, a relentlessly springy rhythm section, and conversationally ambiguous lyrics. And yes, it means that The Feelies still sound like a more genial version of The Velvet Underground, with frontman Glenn Mercer channeling Lou Reed more than ever. But this is a more suburban take on the aesthetic, less “White Light/White Heat” than “White Subdivision/White Minivan.”

Over the years, one of The Feelies’ strengths has been their ability to write vague lyrics that still evoke emotion. Take this classic, laconic line from “Slipping (Into Something)”: “Needing somebody/Needing some help/Slipping into something/And out of something else.”

Now, pointedly reflexive lyrics that make overt references to the band’s long hiatus and reunion are jarring. On the opener,“Nobody Knows,” Mercer sings, “Is it too late/To do it again/Or should we wait another 10?” The subdued title track (“Everything looks familiar/Like I’ve been here before/Another one in a million/Another knock on the door”) would be a suitable soundtrack to a let’s-get-the-band-back-together movie montage, in which the members quit their day jobs and pick up instruments.

For the most part, the self-conscious lyrics don’t detract from the songs’ quality. The standout is “When You Know,” which—with its accelerated pace and Mercer using either a guitar or a synth to sound like a melodica having a seizure underwater—is better than anything from Time for a Witness. Here Before was worth the wait. Hopefully, Mercer isn’t being too literal when he sings, “Later on/When we’re gone/And move on.”