The Guide to Getting Into Felt

The Guide to Getting Into Felt

The Birmingham indie pop greats released 10 albums in 10 years, hoping that by the time they were done they’d be the biggest band in Britain.
February 9, 2018, 6:02pm

The very act of starting a band has always been a gesture of blind ambition, but few groups start with as much naive confidence as Felt. As the Birmingham band’s mononymous frontman Lawrence tells it—at least in retrospect—they were born with an extreme sense of purpose. They’d start small, working only at making the greatest British debut album ever—“It'd be too conceited to say ‘I want to make the best album in the world,’” Lawrence demurred in a recent interview with Noisey—and work outward from there. They’d release 10 albums in 10 years over the course of the 80s, retiring, so the plan apparently went, in the face of the desperate protestations of the millions of fans they’d garner over their time together. Fame awaited, maybe fortune too.

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As seemingly everyone but Lawrence was already hip to, of course, rock ’n’ roll is never that easy. And while it’s easy to mark a handful of unfair breaks that have kept him from his just desserts as his country’s most celebrated songwriter—he did actually have a single called “Summer Smash” pulled from store shelves in the wake of Princess Diana’s death—the reality is that Lawrence never made music that was meant to appeal to everyone. It was simply too homespun, too intricate, too otherworldly to match his grand ambitions.

Drawing on the spindly guitar work of Television and the general chilly climate of the best British underground music of the era, he made a brittle-yet-brilliant version of guitar pop. Across the 10 records, he made tracks full of ghostly whispers, surrealist asides, preening fuck-yous to the wannabe literati, all centered around Lawrence’s unique sense of humor—the unearned confidence of an overachieving underdog. They garnered some successes in their moment—”Primitive Painters,” made with Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins, went to #1 on the UK alternative charts—but nothing quite like Lawrence says he envisioned.

In the years since they’ve disbanded, Lawrence has endeavored upon other projects—like the goofy pop provocations of Denim and Go-Kart Mozart—but the band for which he is best beloved has also become an object of increased fascination. In its immediate wake came a glut of twee bands indebted to his is-he-really-serious? aspirations. The International Pop Underground wanted to write hits, and it was Lawrence who made that a thing you could even say out loud among punks. But of course, over the last couple decades, there have been bands that were directly inspired by their sound too, stretching from the delicate guitar pop underground breakouts like Girls and Real Estate, to fellow British pranksters of the British Isles like Belle and Sebastian and the Manic Street Preachers.

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The ultimate insult to Lawrence’s long-held dreams of stardom is that for years Felt’s catalog has been a bit hard to come by. Much of it lives on streaming services and CD reissues have made it possible to acquire them, but vinyl editions routinely fetch upwards of $50 for resellers, so its fortunate that—alongside a new Go-Kart Mozart album being released later this month—Cherry Red is set to launch a reissue campaign called Felt: A Decade in Music. On February 23, the band’s first five records will once again be available to purchase in deluxe gatefold form, so there’s no better time to dig in if you never have before. Here’s where to start.

(Just a note, at least before these reissues hit streaming services, there's a lot more Felt available on Apple Music than Spotify, so the Apple playlists below reflect the most complete version)

So you want to get into: Pure Pop Felt?

Though Lawrence wasn’t ever really responsible for chart smashes, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have been. From pretty much the very beginning of the band, he had a knack for occasionally brushing away the cobwebs of his hyperliterary lyrics and writing simple, direct songs as immediate and approachable as any of guitar wielding pop songwriter. He writes subtly and evocatively about love and loss, but even when he’s straining under the weight of the world, he imbues the band’s best songs with an otherworldly glow. He has a preternatural knack for writing these glorious pop songs that don’t compromise their bleak worldview, singing devastating lines a joyous smirk (see: the delicate wheeze with which he delivers this immortal barb “Your mind’s a vacant lot that’s for sale).

A big part of the charm of these songs comes from his childhood acquaintance Maurice Deebank’s guitar work. Without ever smudging them with distortion, or many effects at all, he has this freewheeling, lyrical way of twisting around Lawrence’s genteel chords, filling Felt’s more upbeat tracks with an impossible color. Even as Lawrence sings sometimes—as on the the golden-hour refractions of “Spanish House”—your ear can be more drawn to Deebank’s gleaming leads, which flutter with speedy stillness in the margins. It’s no wonder they wrote so many instrumentals, some of Deebank’s leads are hooky enough to be pop songs of their own.

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Playlist: "Spanish House” / “Rain of Crystal Spires” / “Primitive Painters” / “She Lives By the Castle” / “Roman Litter” / “Don’t Die on My Doorstep” / “Whirlpool Visions of Shame” / “Stained Glass Windows In the Sky” / “Fortune”

Apple Music | Spotify

So you want to get into: Fuck-Off Felt?

The joy of being a perennial underdog is that virtually anyone around you becomes a plausible target for an unending choir kiss-offs, put-downs, and fuck-yous. Felt, however mannered their music may seem on its surface, were masters of writing these sorts of songs. Whether due to his childhood spent admiring England’s punk scene or the general sense of aggrievedness he accrued as pop’s lovable outsider, he quickly developed a knack for writing stealthily devastating lines amidst his brighter pop songs.

He’s got a great song about deposing a king, and a letter to a former lover simply called “I Can’t Make Love to You Anymore.” His two best moments as a misanthrope came early in his band’s career, writing an awkward anti-everyone anthem called “All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead,” which as its title might suggest, is full of couplets like “Maybe I should take a gun / And put it to the head of everyone,” sung with anxious desperation. Lawrence, ever the malcontent, also buried one of his best burns on what might be their best pop song, a takedown of pseudo-intellectuals called “Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow” on which he tauntingly, “You're trying to fool somebody, but you end up fooling yourself / You read from A Season in Hell but you don't know what is about.” There’s also a version on which he taunts spiritualists instead for brainlessly parroting the Tibetan Book of the Dead, proof that that there’s a diss buried in the Felt back catalog for just about everyone. It’s an us-against-the-world proposition that make you desperately want to be part of the “us.”

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Playlist: “Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow” / “I Can’t Make Love to You Anymore” / “All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead” / “Dismantled King Is Off the Throne” / “The Day the Rain Came Down” / “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You”

Apple Music | Spotify

So you want to get into: Wispy, Dream Pop Felt?

But for all the ambition and anger that powers one side of Felt, Lawrence is as much of a master of conjuring the exact opposite. While he and Deebank tended to shy away from guitar effects, the way their playing intersected with each others (and eventually with Martin Duffy’s delirious organ parts) had a way of lowering a dreamy fog over the proceedings. Early songs like “The World Is Soft as Lace,” found Lawrence presenting a gentler face to universe, musing on the ways he’d help change society if he could.

As time went on, this was a side he’d continue to indulge, even adopting the fellow dream-pop forerunners in Cocteau Twins as rare outside collaborators. Though Lawrence has occasionally expressed some displeasure over the lush recordings that band’s Robin Guthrie coaxed out of Felt on Ignite the Seven Cannons, that material stands up with their best, particularly on the slow swoons of “Primitive Painters,” which features the vocals of Liz Fraser, and “My Darkest light Will Shine.” During the years the band was signed to Creation Records, they occasionally pushed even further into the fog, offering near ambient balladry on their cover of the Beach Boys “Be Still” and the slow, creeping single “The Final Resting of the Ark.” These songs are why it’s sometimes buying Lawrence’s proclamations that he was singlemindedly focused on success, Something so out-there couldn’t have been an accident.

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Playlist: “The World Is Soft as Lace” / “The Stagnant Pool” / “Vasco De Gama” / “The Final Resting of the Ark” / “There’s No Such Thing As Victory” / “Be Still (Beach Boys cover)” / “My Darkest Light Will Shine”

Apple Music | Spotify

So you want to get into: Ghostly Instrumental Felt?

From Felt’s first single, very first single, the tape-fuzzed guitar experiment “Index,” Lawrence has often made room on Felt records for dazed instrumentals amid all his winking poetry. Most of them have a wispy, spectral quality to them, as if he’s suddenly ghosted away from his own band, leaving only a chill in his absence. Whether on something like the classical guitar nods of “Sempiternal Darkness” or the Ballad of the Band EP’s hazy piano curio “Magellan,” Lawrence tends to let his instrumentals float, offering space and respite amid the squirrelly upbeat numbers.

For most bands, tracks like these would be castoffs or interludes, but, if only because Lawrence made so many of them, they seem crucial to understanding the fullness of Felt, a band with a clear stated intention that did virtually everything they could to subvert that intention. The biggest band in the world could never get away with filling their records with loads of unsettling instrumentals. But these instrumentals—which feel like haunting echoes of the lyrical lost loves, what-ifs, and could’ve-beens that surround them—tell the true story of Felt, a band that couldn’t help but pursue their idiosyncratic impulses, and make something far more special than they ever could’ve planned.

Playlist: "Sempiternal Darkness” / “Magellan” / “A Preacher in New England” / “Voyage to Illumination” / “Fire Circle” / “The Darkest Ending”

Apple Music | Spotify