❉ It’s Lawrence’s ball, of course, and his newfound freedom since the group’s dissolution resulted in a more freewheeling Felt, the subject of this second set of “revisitations”.
For such a relatively obscure body of work, Felt’s music has been subject to a surprising amount of retrospective attention down the years. The dreamchild and performance-artwork of the surname-less Lawrence, his curation has been tireless and sometimes baffling, with an array of tinkered-with reissues since the group’s dissolution at the end of the eighties, artwork and tracks tossed, turned and even junked according to whim. With one eye on the clock, this latest programme is intended to be not only definitive in content, but also the final word on the matter. “Time is running out…” as he told The Quietus upon the release of the first wave of this project in February. As well as yer collectors’ mead of heavyweight vinyl LP facsimiles, each CD edition comes with a splash of memorabilia and a relevant 7 inch vinyl single housed in a uniform box which reproduces the packaging of their very first test pressing. In the over-attention to detail, none more Felt.
Infamously, Felt were intended as a specific conceit – ten LPs, ten 45s, in the ten years 1980-89. How much of this gambit was formulated from the off is open to question, but it’s a great hook, and suitably auto-mythic. Their tenure splits fairly evenly down the middle, the rather more hermetic and formal model of the band up until 1985 aerating with the final departure of classically-trained guitarist and fractious on-off musical partner Maurice Deebank from the fold, which coincided with their signing to Creation Records and the arrival of teenage keyboard wunderkind Martin Duffy. Lawrence’s newfound freedom from having to maintain entente cordiale resulted in a more freewheeling Felt, their work from here until the end of the decade the subject of this second set of “revisitations”.
1986 was a sugar-high of brio for this sometimes self-doubtful outfit, two LPs and two EPs which constitute a sparkling validation of their existence, the latter album Forever Breathes The Lonely Word often spoken-of as their masterpiece. In that it’s a superb summation of their songcraft thus far, it’s difficult to disagree – except that would imply an apex, whereas their trajectory was intended as a steady horizon. Nevertheless, it swirls in a way they never quite had before, in the pocket rather than on a frieze, gallus even, and if you’ve never heard them before, do start here. A passing nod of appreciation to drummer Gary Ainge, the only constant of Felt besides Lawrence; his swish and panache here tells you all you need to know about how properly on it Felt were at the time.
The more melancholy side of Felt wasn’t entirely side-lined, as evidenced on 1987’s quite beautiful Poem Of The River, an apparently troubled production which nonetheless glides elegantly for all its birth pangs, nailing the trancelike afterglow of an ended affair in a suite of pieces pivoting upon two languorous epics. It shares with the Deebank-era albums a feeling of pause and reflection, but gains from the campfire warmth of the band at genuine intuitive play to make a nightcap-listen classic. The second side (in old money) never fails to make this scribe float like Muttley with a new medal.
1988’s The Pictorial Jackson Review, “recorded quickly on eight track” according to the sleeve, has a survivor’s zeal and boho vim, rattling through a scrapbook of economical, snarky swingers in a Basement Tapes fashion, the band effortlessly bottling a wild mercury swagger and Lawrence engaging in Dylanesque jab and j‘accuse in the lyrics. Originally a schizo project, the second side taken up with solo-Duffy supperclub tinklings, this edition jettisons the recto and adds two tracks to the verso, a pleasing redux which strengthens its stance.
The year’s second album, Train Above The City, remains a puzzling chintz curlicue in the discography. A testcard before their final push, it consists solely of drums’n’vibes instrumentals and in its more laid-back moments is charmingly reminiscent of, say, a Vince Guaraldi Peanuts soundtrack, though a little of it goes a long way. It could’ve been even more baffling (the original intention was to issue a multi-track pseudo-library 7 inch entitled Horror Music / Porno Music – part of me still really wishes this actually existed), but it remains a small blur in amongst their usual intricacy.
Apposite moment here for a meagre caveat about the form and function of these reissues. An example: 1986’s Ballad Of The Band EP runs to four tracks and 13 minutes in length, whereas the near-simultaneous LP Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death presents ten instrumentals with a running time of just under 19 minutes, which is to say that Felt did what they wanted, when they could, tending toward shorter issues as best fit, with singles and albums equally substantial statements. It’s Lawrence’s ball, of course, and as a fan it’s fascinating to guess at the reasonings behind the revisions, but to focus so heavily on the LPs in this era is to leave out some wonderful music and skew the complete narrative. Poem Of The River is touchingly appended by 1987’s elegiac, whispered EP Final Resting Of The Ark, for instance, and 1988’s Space Blues EP is everything Train Above The City isn’t, both gaining from the juxtaposition. A standard everything-cake box set type thing would be spectacularly un-Felt, but if these albums appeal, do seek out the missing links – the 1990 compilation Bubblegum Perfume comes highly recommended here.
Finally, 1989’s envoi Me And A Monkey On The Moon sees Lawrence doing the Prospero bit, tidying away his fancies and balladeering upon the travails of his quest. A gently burnished, evening sunshine country’n’midlands swoon of an album, its more nakedly autobiographical aspect paved the way for the subsequent “against the eighties” slant of his next project, Denim. The second half of Felt’s lifespan had seen the core group aided and abetted by a number of temporary collaborators, despite the common view of them as nae-mates miserablists, and there’s something “in the round” about this album which truly gladdens as it curtain-calls
Felt were – to Lawrence’s chagrin – very much a minority interest at the time, and remain slim of champions, but his cussedness and pride in his folly is entirely justified, even as it seems to have caused him nothing but grief along the way. His eccentric orbit was caricatured by journos as haute-poseur whilst they simultaneously encouraged myriad bellicose chancers to go forth and prosper. Even today, he’s generally regarded as his own worst enemy, as if the desire to leave a small mark upon the world while you’re here should be only for a chosen few, who fit the mould.
Thing is with Felt, they were always quizzical and wide-eyed, their highs never merely facile, their lows never mere doldrum. Both studied and guileless, a contradiction to themselves, if they were, and remain, marginal, then it’s perhaps only because they were never mundane, and if they once seemed simply in the slipstream of Lawrence’s musical idols, then the settling of passing time has allowed their music to find its level alongside them. These reissues are gorgeous and maddening, both statue and trinket. Alluring and aloof, beautiful and ridiculous, inviting with the one hand, fending off with the other. None more Felt.
❉ The final five albums in the Felt – A Decade In Music reissue series is released by Cherry Red Records on September 21. Click here to order: https://www.cherryred.co.uk/artist/felt/