Yesterday’s Sound Today
The Feeling's Ultimate Throwback Masterwork, Join With Us

I have never been a big fan of Larry Norman’s work, but I understand his importance.

Norman was one of the first to see the potential in Christian music beyond hymns and straight-up gospel. He wrote searching, scathing tunes that dealt with real spirituality, not trite Bible-isms, and in so doing, he upset most of the Christian music industry. He didn’t conform to the idea that spiritual music should be sedate and preachy – Norman wrote about social issues, and about the real world we live in.

His legacy is far-reaching in my little corner of the world. His sense of depth and questioning nature inspired people like Terry Taylor (whose band, Daniel Amos, was signed to Norman’s label in the early days), Mike Roe, Randy Stonehill and dozens more, artists who are sadly consigned to the “Christian music” ghetto for daring to talk about their faith, but who will never be popular in that ghetto for dealing head-on with their thorny doubts and their real-life struggles.

Larry Norman died last Sunday after a lengthy illness. He was 60 years old.

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The Feeling’s second album, Join With Us, is the number one record in the U.K. right now.

This may not seem weird for the Brits reading this, but as an American watching from the outside, I have to say, that’s bizarre. In the best possible way, of course. Some may disagree, but from where I’m sitting, the Feeling is a band that goes out of its way to be uncool, outside the trends, away from the modern music scene.

They would never hit the top of the charts here – which may be why Join With Us isn’t out in the U.S. yet. My mind boggles when I read criticisms of the Feeling as a corporate band with a formulaic sound designed to move units. They’re certainly not moving units over here – just look at the U.S. sales for Twelve Stops and Home, their dazzling debut (and my #3 album of 2006). Dismal.

On this side of the Atlantic, at least, the Feeling is a wonderful anomaly. They draw from four decades of British pop music, picking and choosing some of the most unfashionable elements of each influence, and combining them into a delirious, fizzy euphoria. Twelve Stops and Home picked up bits from Queen, ELO, Paul McCartney’s solo stuff, 10cc, Supergrass – hell, all the way to James Blunt – and yet sounded refreshingly new to these ears.

Most importantly, they write great pop songs, ones that get stuck in your head for days. Twelve Stops contained, minimum, five stone cold classics, as far as I’m concerned: “I Want You Now,” “Never Be Lonely,” “Fill My Little World,” “Sewn” and “I Love It When You Call.” These are the kind of silly, disposable, unremittingly great pop singles that very few bands are writing these days, and though it types me as old-fashioned to say so, I think modern pop has taken some wrong turns. The Feeling is a band trying to steer the bus back onto the road.

That’s a little grandiose for what is, essentially, a throwaway pop album, but then, Rubber Soul was a throwaway pop album, and so was Pet Sounds. A lot more goes into writing an inescapable pop single than people think, and to come up with five of them on one record is pretty damn good. The rest of Twelve Stops is terrific, too – not a single duff track there, even when the quartet waded into more epic-ballad waters. This is exactly the kind of record that I hear once or twice a year, end up loving to pieces, and watch as no one else pays any attention to it.

But not this time. The Feeling is HUGE in Britain, and that kind of popularity brings an interesting side benefit – the record company is suddenly willing to put up much more money for your second record if you’ve sold millions of your first. And if you know how to use that record company budget right, you can use the second record to build on the first, really capturing the sound you want to create. It’s a luxury few bands are afforded, and a chance so many bands blow.

Not The Feeling. Join With Us is a massive, deep, rich, complex, giddy, joyous, sugary pop explosion of a mission statement. It’s a triumph on every level. The songs are better, the production is amazing, and except for a mild disco beat in leadoff track and first single “I Thought It Was Over,” there are absolutely no concessions to anything going on in modern music right now. This is the ultimate throwback pop album, a celebration of everything laughable and lovable about, as McCartney called them, silly love songs.

The craft evident on this record is incredible, especially considering it’s been only 18 months since Twelve Stops was released. The aforementioned “I Thought It Was Over” kicks off with a thumping synthesizer before the drums explode into a club-like beat. But if you think you’re in for a dance number, you’re mistaken – soon the Brian May guitars and Freddie Mercury pianos come crashing in. The bridge section is pure “Seven Seas of Rhye,” balanced out by an ear-tickling synth break near the end. I know I originally panned this tune, but I think I needed to hear it in full digital glory – it’s a fantastic piece, a worthy first single.

“Without You” would make me queasy on paper – it’s a string-laden soft-rock ballad about the Virginia Tech shootings. But hearing it is revelatory. It’s quite beautiful, Dan Gillespie-Sells handling the topic gracefully. (It’s more about Sells, on tour in America, hearing the news about Virginia Tech and missing his home.) As the song builds and builds, the compounding melodies will knock you out.

And then there’s the title track, the album’s most astounding production. This thing goes beyond 3-D – I would kill for a 5.1 mix of this tune. Pianos pound, harmonies stack one atop the other in a seemingly endless series, guitar choirs wail in harmony, and the band effortlessly shifts from one dynamic melody to the next for the whole run of the song. It’s a riveting listen, and it’s so damn much fun.

What’s so amazing about Join With Us is how assured it is. You have to be supremely self-confident to pen a goofball epic like “Loneliness,” with its repeated “right now” refrain, its burbling synth lines and its wonderfully silly chorus (“Loneliness, what is the point of it”). But to meticulously produce this little ditty until it shines like a lost ELO classic, well, that takes total confidence.

It’s not all consistent, as you’d expect from any album that takes this many detours into giddy-land. But the band sells even the least successful of its tunes through sheer belief in what they’re doing. “Conor,” my least favorite song, has a sticky start – the synth strings come in and Sells sings, “You found a way to change the world, a simple gift for every boy and girl, always a piece for everyone, you showed them all that giving can be fun…” I mean, yuck. But then it blossoms into a latter-day Queen masterpiece, soaring melody and lovely pianos and all.

Same with “This Time,” whispering in after an orchestral flourish with an opening verse that rhymes “what’s in your head” with “who’s in your bed.” But the song is marvelous, a grand ballad that the best radio-pop songwriters would sell their souls to be able to write. Thing is, it’s all so determinedly old-fashioned, so focused on melody, that most radio-pop songwriters wouldn’t know how to begin coming up with it.

I haven’t even mentioned some of my favorites, like the skipping, acoustic “Won’t Go Away” (with a totally uncool, and yet completely cool saxophone solo, if you get my drift), the very Queen-like power ballad “Spare Me,” and the mini-epic “I Did It for Everyone,” which starts with a samba beat and ends with a baby’s voice. The album concludes with the stately “The Greatest Show on Earth,” one of the best songs here, which segues into “We Can Dance,” a lighthearted bonus track that ends things on just the right note. The whole thing is truly great.

I should also mention that the deluxe edition of this album is beautifully packaged. It’s a double digipak hardcover book, and the second CD contains acoustic versions of songs from Twelve Stops, b-sides, and a couple of neat covers. One of those covers really says something about the band – they had the entirety of Peter Gabriel’s catalog to choose from, and they picked “Don’t Give Up,” his mushiest song. And they do it brilliantly, turning what was a cringe-worthy bucket of sap into a sweet little tune.

I loved the first Feeling album, but I had no idea that their second would be a direct descendant of one of my favorite albums ever, Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk. I can offer no greater compliment than that, and I have a (ahem) feeling that somewhere, Andy Stuermer and Roger Manning are grinning like proud parents. Join With Us is a jawbreaker-sized confection of pure pop wonderment, a delight from start to finish, and (like it needs to be said) the best album of 2008 so far.

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Next time, the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world returns. That’s right, the Black Crowes are back with their first record in seven years, Warpaint. I’ll review that, and talk about the first Peter Davison episodes of Doctor Who.

See you in line Tuesday morning.