felt retrospective, pt 2 : penelope tree & the splendour of fear

Let me begin this 2nd installment in our Felt retrospective with a quasi-correction: in the beginning post, I referred to the progenitor, leader, and raison d'être of Felt variously as Lawrence Hayward or Lawrence Heyward. Why? Because the proper spelling of his last name cannot be verified, and he is typically referred to in album credits as simply Lawrence. So we'll do the same.

When we last left Felt, they had dropped an inscrutable DIY late 70s single which yielded none of the pleasures of their future work, a sketchy 1981 single with a germ of song style to come, and a very self-conscious 1982 EP with occasionally sparkling guitar but generally murky and even oppressive tone.

They would soon return to the tom-tom drumming and glistening guitar, but with a bit more maturity, confidence, and clarity. Before that, however, they would release two singles.

1982's "My Face is On Fire" is quite difficult to find and has defeated me in this digital age. An annotated discography reports that "Lawrence didn't like this song and had it redone as 'Whirlpool of Shame' (on The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Stories). We'll get to that soon enough. It's also worth noting that Maurice Deebank, the fairly steady guitar player through the first full-band incarnation of Felt, did not appear on this single.

1983's "Penelope Tree" (named after a 60s model) was unexpectedly vigorous considering what had come before. The vocal delivery is straight out of Television; in fact, as Felt has aged a few years, they sound more like Television's 2nd album, Adventure than the first. There's a multitracked chorus vocal that sounds like a female, but I can't find a credit for it. The song is pretty good, but there isn't much instrumental nuance; Felt would finally combine their best instrumental moments with fully-realized songs a couple of releases down the road.

The next lengthy record, however, concentrated almost entirely on instrumentals and still nary a snare drum or cymbal to be heard. 1984's The Splendour of Fear - 6 tracks over 30 minutes - simply sounds like a more assured take on the first EP, with a more robust sound, more thoroughly composed pieces, and more poise and purpose than experimentation. It's not entirely successful and fairly minor in the scheme of things, but this is the point in Felt's history where you hear the aesthetic truly emerge from the influences. Maurice Deebank's winding guitar really takes over, Lawrence's playing is equal to the task, and the two songs with vocals carry lyrics that are attempts at real poetry, for better or worse (mostly worse when you read them, but at least they take chances). The music becomes more hypnotic than lumbering, it swings a bit more, and we're on the road to greater things.

It's the two songs with vocals that I've chosen for inclusion here, though "The Stagnant Pool" is 3/4 instrumental, and a good guide to what the rest of the EP sounds like. For me, "The Stagnant Pool" is the highlight of Felt to this point, with its drawn-out sense of creeping unease and terrific playing by Deebank.