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Simmer and Boil : What Separates the Feelies and Firehose Is the Height of the Flame

June 20, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

The difference between the Feelies and Firehose is like the difference between being hypnotized and slapped in the face. Either way, the mind-set gets rearranged.

The Feelies, who hail from Haledon, N.J., are gradualists, detail men (and woman, in the case of bassist Brenda Sauter), whose songs tend to unfold rather than erupt. Nuance matters with the Feelies. Their object is to heighten a listener's awareness of shifting dynamics, of the precise interrelationships between interwoven guitars and a space-sharing drums and percussion tandem.

On a good night, the band's controlled burn builds to climactic payoffs that have all the more impact because they are arrived at gradually. The Feelies aren't a traditionally exuberant stage band, but they can be a visually interesting one as guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million let the musical currents move them.

Million and Mercer started the Feelies in 1977. By 1978, the Village Voice was declaring them "The Best Underground Band in New York," in a cover feature that listed such New York underground heroes as Television's Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd among their admirers. A debut album, "Crazy Rhythms," in 1980, cast the Feelies as torchbearers in a line of Velvet Underground-influenced Northeastern rockers: after the Modern Lovers and Television; before Sonic Youth and Galaxie 500.

The Feelies' career got derailed for several years by business complexities (they broke up at one point), but they have had a steadier course since regrouping in 1986, releasing three more albums that continue to carry that Velvets' torch. The latest, "Time for a Witness," finds Mercer singing in a more forthright, occasionally Dylanesque voice on songs that acknowledge life's fundamental difficulty but counsel energetic confrontation of troubles rather than sulking complaint.

Firehose, by contrast, is a band of eruptions and sudden zigzags, a power rock trio that suggests what the Who might have been if it had a penchant for obscure lyrics and songs without conventional pop hooks (which would have made the Who a considerably lesser band than it was). This knotty approach makes Firehose one of the least likely groups ever signed by a huge, multinational label: Firehose's new album, "Flyin' the Flannel," is on Columbia Records, making the San Pedro trio corporate stablemates of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.

Maybe the Columbia folks figured that Firehose has the potential to become what the Who once was: a definitive power band. That would require more linear, melodic songs, and a better singer than Ed Crawford, who does just fine as the slashing guitar foil to the mighty bass and drums team of Mike Watt and George Hurley. What's Roger Daltrey doing these days, anyway?

"Flyin' the Flannel" (titled in honor of Watt's trademark checked shirts) is hardly a bid for mainstream accessibility. In fact, the title song is a proud declaration of the artistic independence and rocking power that Firehose has carried forward from its previous incarnation, the Minutemen:

I grabbed the tiller on the big steam wheel,

I kicked the throttle, the brake squealed!

I flew the flannel and said, "Feel."

Straight up, I flew the flannel and said, "C'mon, feel."

Usually, it feels like a good, bracing slap in the face.

Who: The Feelies and Firehose.

When: Thursday, June 20, at 8 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.

Wherewithal: $15.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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