The Feelies

Only Life

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After the taut, wired focus of the Feelies' brilliant debut, 1980's Crazy Rhythms, and the more open and pastoral sound of their belated second album, 1986's The Good Earth, the group found a semi-comfortable middle ground on their third LP (and major-label debut), 1988's Only Life. Featuring the same revamped lineup that recorded The Good Earth -- guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, percussionist Dave Weckerman, and drummer Stan Demeski -- this album rocks decisively harder, but leaves more open space than on Crazy Rhythms. These musicians revel in the joys of their own rhythmic grooves, nerdy but fierce, while the guitars soar above it all. Only Life has a tone of easy confidence that the first two Feelies' albums lacked, but it also sounds absolutely like them. The foggy authority of Mercer's vocals is stronger than ever on numbers like "Higher Ground" and the title track. The complex simplicity of their balance of guitars and percussion sometimes recalls the Velvet Underground, but the Feelies were one of the few bands that built something uniquely their own from Lou Reed's multiple influences, as the sinewy "The Undertow" and the frenetic, joyous "Away" demonstrate. (The closing Velvets cover, "What Goes On," brilliantly sums up where the Feelies' influences end and where their own ideas began.) Only Life isn't as immediately striking as the two albums that preceded it, with the group refining and refocusing their approach rather than offering major stylistic innovations. But it also delivers the Feelies being their own remarkable selves, clear-eyed and strong and unerringly human, and this album features some of their strongest performances on record; very few major label debuts of this era sounded as natural and casually uncompromised as Only Life.

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