In 1986 when The Good Earth came out, the smoldering wreckage of disco, new wave and punk lay on the sonic shoreline like so much tsunami debris, waiting for any band to make a move. Grunge was starting to gain traction on the west coast, and back east there were a few bands starting to shake off the historical dust of the last decade and seeking a new (or old) sound that made sense for the approaching 90’s. In Haledon, New Jersey The Feelies had been quietly playing their brand of layered, guitar-based psychedelic folk for almost a decade. They had made one previous album, Crazy Rhythms, which was a favorite of critics and other bands, but had won them few fans out of Jersey and even fewer sales. The truth is, there is no happy ending to this story. They never got the recognition or the sales they deserved, never had a hit, never got rich, but over the last 40 or so years they have sporadically released five albums, toured occasionally and remained one of the real high spots of the end of the last century in my opinion.
The basic Feelies approach is a folky song structure with dreamy, yearning lyrics that almost invariably becomes a trance-inducing raga as drummers Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman set up a precision tribal assault while guitarists Glen Mercer and Bill Million lay on piles of Byrdsian, Velvetish, Neilworthy textures and leads, weaving in and out of each other’s lines like a basket of snakes. The Good Earth is ultimately a guitar album. Although there are virtually no extended guitar solos, the Feelies sound is defined by the walls of strummed acoustic guitars against mountains of electric chords, all the while mercury leads slide along the bottom, buzzing and giving melodic depth to each song. One never feels like they are listening to a wank-fest - nobody ever takes center stage with The Feelies; they define the ensemble concept in rock. It made perfect sense that the first time I saw them they were opening for Lou Reed. Lou had certainly developed a signature voice and sound, but his groundbreaking work with The Velvet Underground also explored the concept of a small group of players creating a droning cosmic wail by playing simple, parts that, together, work like a musical jigsaw puzzle. Listen to “The High Road” to get the idea. An unfailing rhythm sets up a memorable melody with the perfect use of drums and tambourine to drive the song, counterpointed by a simple but haunting bass line, while the guitars roil and shine to meet the lyric: “Gonna rise and carry us home tonight.” It is sublime, and it is the kind of song every band wishes they could write. The Feelies toss them off like rolling off a log.
There is something remarkably comforting to me about The Good Earth. When I have just about had enough of this or that kind of autotuned, fake-beat, sampled, bullshit noise, and I want to hear some “beautiful hippie music” I reach for this album as a balm. The Feelies wrote great songs, and played them in a way that I can relate to. There are absolutely no gimmicks, or nods toward current fashion. It’s pretty simple, don’t assault the listener, give them something of lasting value.
- Paul Epstein