Only Life

I have a particular fondness for music that induces a trance-like reverie, and it’s a difficult thing to pull off. One musical device that almost never fails to work with me is a simple guitar or keyboard riff of maybe two or three chords, endlessly repeated to produce a sense of harmonic stasis. One of the finest examples of such is to found on The Feelies’ Only Life from the album of the same name.

The Feelies have often been compared to third album (The Velvet Underground) Velvet Underground in sound and mood, and there is certainly a strong similarity. The Only Life album even contains a cover of the Velvet’s What Goes On. But although Glenn Mercer’s vocals strongly echo Lou Reed’s style, they are actually quite distinctive and in some ways more expressive. What is certain is that the sound of The Feelies, guitar-rich yet totally devoid of mainstream or arena rock cliches, was another lasting blueprint for much of the independent music of the 1980s and beyond.

But back to the track, Only Life. It starts with two acoustic guitars settling into a two note/chord pattern, one guitar picked, the other strummed with a prominent rolling bass line and steady uncomplicated drumming. This is sustained throughout the song. The half sung/spoken lyrics concern withdrawl from life – a sort of rewrite of the Velvet’s After Hours – and there is but one guitar feedback solo to provide an instrumental break between the first and second verses. Much of the song is simply the underlying vamp without adornment, all of which adds to the static, trance-like, quality of the performance.

At just over 3 minutes, this is a brief cut but it seems much longer than it really is (in a good way) and is wholly effective in setting a reflective mood for the rest of the album. The record continues, with variations, in much the same way sustaining a powerfully coherent mood. The Feelies were a well-named band. Absurdly, this masterpiece is currently deleted (a common fate for good records released on the A&M label). Hopefully that will be put right soon enough.

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