The Feelies’ new record opens with the sound of a crackling campfire and chirping birds, an implication of contentment in place and time. Then there’s that defining strum, the jangly interplay of guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million. Mercer’s voice enters, speak-singing in a worn whisper “Make a plan / Let it be”, seeming to echo that initial impression of peace. But as he continues, here and throughout the Feelies’ sixth album In Between, it becomes apparent that finding contentment is hard work, an ongoing struggle against doubt and a hundred other internal and external complications.
Even the album’s collective song titles, all two- and three-word phrases, amplify a sense of dis-ease amidst the search for inner peace in later life: “Turn Back Time”, “Stay the Course”, “Been Replaced”, “Gone, Gone, Gone”, “Time Will Tell”, and then the book ended versions of the title song “In Between”. How cleverly evasive it is to place the “In Between” on the ends, thereby encompassing all else here. Does Mercer have a message for us: Is everything “in between”? And, if so, what are the defining poles? Well, that last answer seems obvious, and the sense of being in between is perhaps heightened by an awareness of which side of the mortal clock Mercer, along with most of us who have long followed his band’s career, is on.
But this is not a record about death; rather, it is one that firmly embraces life (again, the “in between”) while contemplating the complexities of aging. There is contentment here, but it is not untroubled: such is the reality for anyone who has undertaken life’s trials and persevered. Maybe the scariest thing about growing older is the realization that so much of what used to matter gets stripped away and revealed as an external distraction from our internal growth. Mercer’s lyrics throughout the album seek to strip away the extraneous, to bore into the core of being.
Sometimes in art, it takes strict adherence to a framework to reveal the deepest levels of creativity and mastery of vision. In Between is a testament to that truth. The Feelies have always been defined by Mercer and Million’s droning guitars, but the atomic clock precision of drummer Stan Demesky along with the contributions of percussionist Dave Weckerman and bassist Brenda Sauter fill the framework of the band’s sound so thoroughly that to remove anyone would destroy the group’s cohesion.
Weckerman’s mad box of percussive tricks spices the mix of every song, sometimes subtly, as with the blocks and cowbells of “Turn Back Time”, at others in the forefront, as when his sleigh bells bring acceleration to “Make It Clean” or where his wood block pulse provides a foundation for Mercer’s Spanish guitar run. Most importantly, his interplay with Demesky allows bassist Brenda Sauter to break away from the rhythm section and find her own sonic space. Sometimes the effect is to give a song something like multiple heartbeats, each working in synchronicity but nonetheless distinct. At still others, Sauter’s deep bass lines are the melodic foundation upon which Mercer and Million build their famous jangle. But at significant points on In Between, Sauter will move to the lower strings, her higher tone serving as the primary engine of the sound. In the break between choruses in “Turn Back Time”, for instance, she is leading from behind, the rest of the band following along. So, too, in “Stay on Course”, Sauter’s chugging bass is the engine of forward motion for the song, while, in “Gone, Gone, Gone” her playing provides the swing in what might be the world’s first existential angst dance record.
The extended, Velvet Underground-inspired jam of “In Between (Reprise)” offers a strong statement of music’s life-affirming power. That this mostly quiet album ends on so loud a note is no accident. The poet Galway Kinnell once wrote of our mortality as “being forever in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.” Mercer seems well aware of such poetic truth. Despite intimations of mortality, there’s plenty of rocking and rolling left in this house.
// Notes from the Road
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