As a genre, new wave is one tricky son of a bitch. It gave us some of the most artistically remarkable and blatantly self-indulgent music of the 1970s and 80s, from Talking Heads to Culture Club, Joy Division to A Flock of Seagulls. Then there are The Feelies. Cited by later, more illustrious bands as an important influence, the group may not have graced the covers of glossy magazines during their modest zenith, but those who heard them would drop their name left and right. It is not difficult to see how or why this occurred -- at their best, The Feelies were what R.E.M. always hoped, but never had the cojones, to be: carefree, reckless, fun.
But forget R.E.M. The Feelies, and specifically their stellar debut, deserve a review based on their music’s own merit. Crazy Rhythms, released in April 1980 amongst a veritable shitstorm of like-minded groups, stands grinning madly at the top of the pile -- a shining monument to new wave at its quirky best. Many bands of the era shared certain inexorable similarities, and these guys prove no exception to the rule: yelping, loopy vocals; clean, noodly guitar (“angular” by todays parlance); quick, driving rhythms. However, The Feelies stand out because of their willingness to look beyond the genre’s boundaries and explore some genuinely electrifying territory.
The songs on Crazy Rhythms are individual exercises in the expansion and contraction of energy. Opener “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” begins in complete silence before a couple snaps and clicks announce its advent. Drummer Anton Fier quickly throws a Krautrock beat on super-overdrive, accompanied by a first two-chord guitar line, then another more intricate line, then a third, and so on. The song begins on the ground and ends up, like most Feelies tunes, somewhere in the stratosphere. But this is not some strange species of psychedelia; that word is bandied about carelessly these days, and these songs are too quick, too tightly wound for such a loose, unflattering term. No, this is pop music, albeit pop music with legs. Sonic Youth’s seminal Sister comes to mind, if they had been even more concerned with crafting hooks than noise.
Indeed, where The Feelies so often succeed is where others fall short; ironically, given the title of the album, it's not the beat which elevates these dudes, it's their sense of melody. The album’s first single, the catchy standout “Fa Cé-La,” is a two-minute seminar in tunefulness and -- take note bands -- tastefulness. A lone acoustic guitar introduces the track, but is soon accented by a potent poom-poom-pah drumbeat and two soaring electric guitars that squeal and moan over the first verse. The simple, mesmeric chorus carries some of the only vocal harmonies on the record and is over before you know it. The guitars wail, more purposefully this time, over the second verse; there is a final chorus, a quick outro, and yep, that just about does it; close ‘er up, nice job!
The following track, “Loveless Love,” begins with some quiet, understated guitar harmonics before unfolding with the agile push-and-pull dynamics employed with constant success on Crazy Rhythms. Most of the song, like the album’s opener, is a two-chord exercise in sped-up Kraut-pop, but right around the 4:15 mark, its stomach bursts -- guts fall all ass-out and a great, slithering snake of a guitar line appears. It is decadent and spooky, but blissful, almost orgasmic in its sense of abrupt release. In true Feelies form, this catharsis lasts only 20 seconds before the song is done, spent, kaput. “Can't relax when there's things to do,” singer Glenn Mercer declares later on the title track, and one gets the distinct feeling he might be singing about the band’s epileptic artistic process.
Crazy Rhythms is brilliant and indispensable, partly because it doesn't beg to be dissected and explained, but simply to be listened to and absorbed. It's a difficult album to write about from any typical critical standpoint -- there is little embellishment to be found here, no studio trickery, no misguided pomposity of any sort. Even the requisite cover (a Beatles cover at that -- who are these guys, Aerosmith?) manages to avoid the pitfalls such undertakings generally risk by instantly becoming, well, a Feelies tune. It’s fun, fast, and melodious, and it works -- nah, it rules. This album just plain rules. So frequently the records we deem Great and Important are difficult, unapproachable, pedantic. How refreshing it is when one of them just wants us to dance.
1. The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness
2. Fa Cé-La
3. Loveless Love
4. Forces at Work
5. Original Love
6. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)
7. Moscow Nights
8. Raised Eyebrows
9. Crazy Rhythms
10. Paint it Black [CD reissue bonus track]