Gotta say, straight up this is one of the best new discoveries I’ve made in a long while thanks to a certain British magazine. Uncut, fans of their beloved ‘Americana’, lauded the The Felice Brothers’ follow up album Yonder Is The Clock in their end of year round-up for 2009. What you’ll find in nearly every online review is mention of, for better or worse, how much they take their sound from Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes recorded in 1967. The Felice Brothers fair crackles with old-timery instrumentation, ramshackle aesthetic, cracked country vocal, honky tonk ragtime piano, woozy accordion, plinky-plonk banjo and stomping barn dance beats. It’s a total winning sound, extremely endearing. Several reviewers have lambasted them for what they perceive as a lack of authenticity. Their loss.
On the surface The Felice Brothers sounds like you’ve stumbled into a barn or pub in the heart of some isolated country town and the farmers were having a hoedown with the local musicians playing original songs with great gusto, songs about various deadbeat or down and out characters, all done with a large dash of doom and gloom and a good dose of “to hell with that, we’re here to have fun,” which is to say the stompers shout down the grimmer numbers by a fair rip. This is a kind of country rock through and through, but it’s a good ole boys, noisy barmy hay bale music that has nothing to do with Nashville and everything to do with grit and feeling. Not that I’m a country expert mind, but what I love about The Felice Brothers is that they play fast and loose with their sound on purpose. Must add here that one of the most endearing qualities of this band, like the Beatles and Gomez, among other greats, is that there are three lead singers, all with great voices who often sing in off-kilter unison. On a few tracks the lead vocal is swapped around, although for the most part, Dylan-soundalike Ian Felice does most of the singing.
Titling this album The Felice Brothers hints at a debut, when in fact this is their fifth official release. For the most part it’s a re-recorded version of their 2007 effort The Adventures of the Felice Brothers Vol 1, which along with the other three releases were made in such small numbers they’re out of print, except for Tonight At The Arizona.
Little Ann…is a slow acoustic number with a lovely melancholic tune. “Don’t you cry, let that stormy weather go.” This is a nice mellow opener. It’s mostly acoustic guitar with liquid drops of electric notes sprinkled throughout and a soft beat played on what sounds like the back of an acoustic guitar.
Greatest Show On Earth…kicks off with some jazzy piano music which quickly changes to a more somber affair. This song goes through several changes. Starts off relatively sparse, the chorus soon returns, back to some jaunty piano, then the somber mood strikes again; a rapid series of changes. “Everyone knows she’s the killing kind / She keeps a thirty-eight Smith & Weston by her side.” Some lovely instrumentation when the saxes kick in and add some gorgeous texture to the song. Then the chorus comes on proper with the whole crew belting it out. “Ooooh, happy days are here / It’s a perfect summer night / And the moonlight shining clear / Put a pistol in your purse / Cos we’re going to Gettysburgh / To the stand of the greatest show on earth.” I guess the title “The Greatest Show On Earth” informs the kind of wonky atmosphere of the chorus, hence the brass section. At five and a half minutes with all those changes, this is a minor epic. The chorus is loud and jubilant. Squalling horns and voices, followed by a real ragtime instrumental break. It reminds me a lot of New Orleans jazz too, the way different instruments play different melodies over top of one another. Fades out. Definitely one of their best songs full stop.
Frankie’s Gun…but truly the best song on the album is surely this one. It’s got a killer tune. Opens with a big noisy accordion harmony. Lyrics are entertaining and offer up some neat wordplay. “My car goes / To Chicago / Every weekend I pick up some cargo / I think I know the bloody way by now Frankie.” Chorus is huge and catchy too. Three voices do some vocal interplay. Ian Felice definitely has a Dylan thing going on here with his phrasing and word play. Hey his voice even sounds like Dylan circa 1967. This has a barn dance quality about it with a sha nee na vocal/chorus break coming after the main chorus. Accordions kick back in. Song seems to be about a pair of idiots, one who shoots the other, perhaps accidentally. Choice line: “Frankie got me off a bender / After long-legged Brenda died.” This is a great number with a strong country flavour. Finishes with a classic “ye little old lady whooo” yodel.
Goddamn You, Jim…illustrates one of the reasons this album is so good. The pacing changes a lot. This song is very quiet. The voice is a quiet falsetto and it’s hard to say if it’s the same lead singer as on the previous three tracks. Perhaps not such a memorable track, but it provides a nice kind of sound balm, sonic salve to the previous two barnstormers.
Wonderful Life…is probably my third favourite song. The #1 lead singer, Ian Felice, has a really nice warm cracked voice, a touch husky, a strong accent, like burnt maple syrup. “Throw your arms around me / Let’s keep this quiet / Hear our hearts in the distance / Like cannon fire / See our breath in the window / In the siren light / Oh, it’s a wonderful life.” This song has a lovely tune. The title is no doubt ironic given that for the most part the Felices’ sound is one of broken hearts, broken lives; a lot of melancholia going down right across both their albums. “Now all I do is sing sad songs with red eyes… /…Hear our hearts in the distance like cannon fire.” Nice organ sound.
Don’t Wake The Scarecrow…is a bit dark lyrically. Seems to be sung to a girl advising her not to become a hooker. This has yet another gorgeous tune, although I would say that it sounds instantly familiar, so much so that I’m willing to bet money there are precedents for this tune. Part of this effect could be owing to the sound of second lead singer Simone Felice who sounds much like Cat Stevens in both his phrasing and tonal quality of voice. “Well I was born down / By a bad little river in a poor town / Where an Indian-giver put a board out / It said ‘Boarding House’ / Call him Scarecrow / He kept whores around.” This has the kind of circular melody that is instantly recognisable and likable. Acoustic guitars and voice carry most of the song. Clocks in around the five minute mark. Some plucked banjo here and there to break up the verses. More droning organs provide a sound bed. Beautiful.
Take This Bread…um, so yeah this would be my second favourite song here (among all the other second favourites), a real singalong. Opens with a voice leaving a message on someone’s answer phone about a fire in California. Then the song starts, with lots of horns and bashed guitar, real shambolic kind of stuff, and yet not too shabby. “My neighbour Odetta / Came over to see if I was feeling better / Every morning at eight / Through the backyard gate….She’d sing to me [the chorus] / ‘Take this bread / If you need it friend / Cos I’m alright if you’re alright / I aint got a lot / But what I got / You’re welcome to it / Cos I’m alright if you’re alright.'” Lovely tune, awesome chorus, all three or four voices in the mix, then a weird instrumental break with lots of background talking while the lead singer does a crazy-sounding but quite brilliant Dylan voiceover thing. Again the specter of Dylan and The Band loom very close. Fantastic stuff.
Saint Stephen’s End…nice tune played arpeggio style on an electric guitar. “Did you hear about Saint Stephen’s end / How they stoned him by the river bend? / In the morning sun / When the world was young.” This is another quite slow melancholic number which reminds me a bit of the opener ‘Little Ann.’ Ian Felice sings about various tragedies before imploring, “Oh Mary don’t you cry / Please lay your weary hand in mine.”
Love Me Tenderly…another big-chorused number, this time driven by the piano. It opens with a ‘live’ sound, clinking bottles and hoots of laughter in the background. It has a stompin’ beat and belted out chorus while the band sing something different in the background. Mid-song meta-moment; “Wooh, James Felice on the piano / Real talent / Alright Jimmy that’s enough / Let’s wrap it up,” while James tinkles the ivories. Later the chorus: “A bottle of gin, a shotgun and a violin / Wouldn’t you like that? … / Ooh, a sunny day, a shotgun and a chevrolet / Wouldn’t you like that?” Song seems to be about a guy who gets out of the army and spends all his money on lovely Eleanor, a character who crops up in ‘Whiskey In My Whiskey’ three songs later, only to get shot down (there’s an awful lot of shootings across these fifteen songs).
Ruby Mae…opens with a swaying accordion or organ…um…thing that makes you feel like you’ve lost your balance. This sets up the after-closing-hours feel when the song finally kicks in. Like ‘Little Ann’ and ‘Frankie’s Gun,’ this is another character-driven song, all about Ruby Mae who danced the cabaret; “Such a lovely girl was she / That Ruby Mae / In the open window breeze / She pulled her stockings above her knees.” This one also has a strong Dylan aesthetic on it, very Basement Tapes. Nice tune. Slower number. Apparently the song is based on some old sweetheart of the brothers’ grandpa.
Murder By Mistletoe…is probably the only one so far that hasn’t registered with me much after playing the album numerous times. That’s not to say it’s not a pretty song. Just an acoustic guitar, a slow drumbeat, a forlorn piano and a world weary vocal. But perhaps it doesn’t have the same depth of tune as most of the other songs. A bleary-eyed number that sounds lost somewhere down at the end of the world.
Whiskey In My Whiskey…has a cello or viola giving this a really strong country feel. The singer here is James Felice. He reminds me of Ben Ottewell out of Gomez, the one with a voice that sounds like Tom Waits crossed with Eddie Vedder. A dry hoarse low kind of voice, but very pleasant and even-keeled. “I put some whiskey into my whiskey / And I put some heartbreak into my heart / I made my way across that old dance floor / I put three rounds Lord in my Eleanor”. Brilliant. One of the better songs on here. Real singalong stuff.
Helen Fry…another song built around a character. Lots of stabbed electric organ lines and a strong ominous kind of vocal and drumbeat. I’d forgotten how good this song was. It gets loud in the instrumental break, lots of wild stabbed guitars describing an embattled thunderous sky. “Helen Fry, she’s a master of disguise.”
Radio Song…is indeed a bona fide radio-friendly pop song. Simone Felice singing again, whose wavery voice conjures up Cat Stevens. This eschews the country rhythms for a more regular Wilco-like pace. I guess that’s why it’s called ‘Radio Song’. It has easily the poppiest chorus but it’s still awesome. Accordions and a big hearted chorus with all three vocalists in the mix. Sweet.
Tip Your Way…is played on a quiet churchy organ and acoustic guitar. It’s a long song to end the album with, during which Ian Felice enumerates an endless list of people to tip. “Tip the maid a dollar in the hand / Tip the man with the gun / Tip at least everyone / Tip your way into heaven’s gate / Tip the grocery girl if you want / Tip the women who wait on the white magistrate / Tip the butler / Tip the boy at the bar / Tip the one in the feathers and tar / Tip your way into heaven’s gate.”
So, I realize that of these fifteen songs, at least eleven of them are battling for supremacy in my favourites rank. That’s an impressive strike rate – eleven killer tunes and two slower meeker numbers. I’m pretty sure I rate The Felice Brothers slightly higher than their follow-up album Yonder Is The Clock, because this one has more anthems and big tunes on it.