It seems strange that the Feelies’ third album is only now being reissued. Stranger still that Crazy Rhythms isn’t available, but that’s a topic for another article. Since New Jersey’s favorite nerds played a Fourth of July gig with Sonic Youth in New York’s Battery Park, they’ve reasserted their reputation as one of the best bands of the 1980s, despite a career that never really felt like taking flight (aside from moving to Florida).
Only Life, the band’s major label debut from 1988, immediately brings to mind the band’s obvious influence, the Velvet Underground, and a band that was hugely influenced by Crazy Rhythms, R.E.M. Glenn Mercer’s voice sometimes brims with Lou Reed’s detachment, yet he’s not averse to enthusiasm. On "Too Much," he’s sailing, uncorking a guitar solo as melodic and transcendental as anything Tom Verlaine played with Television.
The record is a far cry from the tensions of the Feelies’ live show - its first half is downright peaceful – but it never gets easy. It pieces together its own momentum, riding Mercer and Bill Millions’ downstrokes in an impressive exercise in subtlety. Everything crests on the last three tracks, "Too Far Gone," "Away" and a cover of the Velvets’ "What Goes On," Mercer’s guitar soars over tightly-coiled rhythms that contain equal helpings of joy and dread.
The Feelies’ music exists in a claustrophobic space where punk borders pop. They’ve always managed to fend off the latter’s commercial blandness while vying for the type of big league attention they deserved, but perhaps fortuitously, never received. Only Life undeniably sounds like a product of its time, but it also portrays a band in the best Velvets tradition, with a clear sense of what and when not to play.