The Felice Brothers, Yonder Is The Clock, 2009

I bought this at the same time as I bought the Felice Brothers’ eponymously titled 2008 album at the end of 2009. It made sense to play the The Felice Brothers first and do the full Bumstead works on that before unleashing Alan on Yonder Is The Clock, although Yonder has had better accolades by online review sites. I don’t think there’s a great deal of distinction between them. They have much more in common than not. The biggest difference may be that on LP Yonder is played at 45, Felice at 33. I’ll make a short note on what main difference I perceive at the end of this review. The theme of this album is a curious blend of death and nostalgia.

The Big Surprise… as with The Felice Brothers, this opens with a quiet song, a nice slow guitar line and plaintive piano. “Get the boys turn on the show / Get the cameras set to go / Go tell the host he’s on in five / It’s the day of the big surprise.” ‘The Big Surprise’ takes off though when a persistent drum starts to chime in with a particular piano motif and the song builds and builds, threatening at any moment to turn into a huge anthem, but never quite reaches the heights hinted at. The piano makes the song here. It’s a great opening track. Evokes a nostalgic mood.

Penn Station… is a song that takes a whole week to get out of my head when I’ve heard it just once. “Well, I diiiiiieeeeed in Penn Station tonight oh Lord,” yells Ian Felice reaching for his gravelliest falsetto to wrench out that ‘die’. The drums kick into gear, a real raw bashed sound. The brothers hit the chorus together; “And I’m going to track number seven / There’s a train to take me to heaven oh lord / But a faster train’s coming near / That the devil engineers.” This line is the highlight of the whole track. Such a good tune, and when that line hits, you’re almost jumping out of your seat before the breakdown which is like a party in the middle of a bar-room. The song then speeds up with the good old train rhythm thing on the harmonica. Killer tune. Awesome singalong.

Buried In Ice pulls back from the full steam ahead feel of Penn Station. “I had a dream I was buried in ice / Doesn’t that sound nice?” A slow piano-led song with a lot of fiddly sounds in the background and a nice cello. This is a fairly pleasant song that moves like a glacier, and seems to be about time travel, except that you have to “Be careful what you wish for / It comes at such a price / To be buried in ice.”

Chicken Wire… an odd song this one, lyrically. “Very soon I will be / In the deep blue sea / Wrapped in chicken wire / By my own device / The navy will come / The sharks will bite / It will be so hard to fight / Wrapped in chicken wire / By my own device / Oh mama don’t go / Don’t leave me alone.” This is a noisy rocking twelve bar blues. Seems to be about someone on his death bed, in a delirium, while all around everyone else leaves him as the medics come to take him away. It’s all rolled out in a rollicking thumping retro blues with a great tune. You can’t not love it. Okay, I’ve got it. He’s in a fever, dying. Dying seems to be theme for the next few songs.

Ambulance Man… is another dying song, only this time somewhat more morbid than ‘Chicken Wire’ but almost a kind of follow up to that song. “There goes the tide / There goes my heart / Burning alive.” But where ‘Chicken Wire’ showed us a dying man burning with fever, this song sounds more like the post-mortem from the ambulance driver’s perspective. “Here come the sharks / Tearing my good neighbours apart.” He’s got the ambulance man blues or something. “Ambulance man / Please let me ride / I’m at the end / Ambulance man / I’m at the eeeeeeend.” The drums only come in late. I can hear a banjo behind the rise and fall of a continuous accordion swell. This is the life-flashing-before-your-eyes perspective from the dying man in the back of the ambulance. Exquisitely imagined stuff.

Sailor Song… and here they keep bringing the album into what strikes me as Tom Waits territory. The singer here is James Felice. This song keeps the whole slide of the coffin into an ocean grave going along slowly but surely to its inevitable end. This is a death lament song. “I have seen the endless waves breaking / … / No grave for the swallowed sailor … / Down I go / Down I go / Down I go / Down to meet them all.” Thing is, the Felice Brothers do death as a kind of cabaret show. The tunes are too pretty, the tones all too er … lovely to get you down. But there’s a distinct theme running through these last three songs. This one is even slower and more morbid sounding than ‘Ambulance Man.’

Katie Dear… the slow pace continues. This time with acoustic guitar and electric piano. “Katie dear, make me a road map…” Appears to be sung from the point of view of Katie’s husband who’s in prison. Nice tuba solo. The instrumentation on these songs, which is a various collection of tubas, accordions, pianos, strings, acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, banjos, or whatever twinkling thing is adding texture in the background, makes every track delightful and sumptuous on the ears. Okay, so Side Two is real downer music but all three of these songs have warm melodies, and you’ll forgive Ian Felice anything with that voice of his; I described it before as burnt maple syrup. I can’t better that. It’s smooth but full of tiny cracks and flaws, a little bit cranky, but just really nice.

Run Chicken Run… launches Side Three straight into what might be my second favourite song on the album. This is another odd song, follows a kind of narrative about someone in New York city on the run from something.  It’s got a great chorus, lots of fiddle playing along, rollicking bass and fast beat. Generally I prefer the more upbeat raucous Felice brothers numbers. They do them so well because the songs swing, and there’s usually other voices joining in on the chorus, and there’s a sense of urgency and danger, like cowboy danger, especially in this song. “Run chicken run / Don’t you lose your head / Oh the cat got out the bag / You better keep your sense / Breathe chicken breathe / Don’t you lose your breath / Chickens don’t get no life after death.” I love the noisy gritty feel of real instruments in this one. It’s such a nice respite from hearing the electronic effects so many bands use these days. The Felice Brothers, once you’ve fallen in love with their sound, start to sound like some classic American band who’ve been around since the sixties. I guess that’s what they’re aiming for.  Maybe a little bit derivative, but I think they’ll continue to evolve, now they’ve made a name for themselves.

All When We Were Young this song is a case in point. It has one of those classic songbook kind of tunes, like it doesn’t sound like anything you know, but it does sound like you’ve known it forever. Singer here is Simone Felice, he of the Cat Stevens voice. This has fiddles. The theme of the whole album, given the title Yonder Is The Clock and the kind of instrumentation seems to be nostalgia for the past. “Some nights we’d get so high / We’d be like Jesus Christ / We drove around in cars / The world was ours /All when we were young.”

Boy From Lawrence County… is another homage to nostalgia. It reminds me of the Willard Grant Conspiracy with just a bit more variety than that great band. This is another drumless accordion and banjo song. Add some zither and rocking chair creaks and everything combines to create a lush rich sound. This tells the narrative of a refugee, a wanted man, from a friend’s perspective. “Tell me judge / What’s the bounty / On that boy from Lawrence County? / He’s a friend of mine.”

Memphis Flu… is a total respite from the ‘lush rich sound’ I just described.  This sounds like it was recorded on one mike in a bar, live. It’s a jaunty accordion bar room singalong, badly recorded, sounds unmixed. Impossible to make out the words. A distinct break in the flow. Probably a good thing. Quite catchy nonetheless.

Cooperstown… was released as the single I think. The nostalgia gets laid on thick here. It’s a baseball song, about some baseball legend from 1905. “Oh Ty Cobb / You’re dead and gone / You had a game like a war machine / And through the great hall of fame / You wandered.” It’s a kind of lament for an America past. It’s an utter classic. Might be the best song here. It’s not a fast song, but it has a yearning quality that’s quite appealing. Quite moving and long—over six minutes. A real stop you in your tracks kind of song, it has that dreamy feeling of ennui, like when you’re daydreaming about some really nice summer from thirty years ago. Another song you can’t fail to like.

Rise and Shine… is a slow pensive piano ballad and seems to hark back to that theme on Side Two about the fellow in his death bed. “This fever you’ve known for days might be your end / How quickly you’ve slipped around the bend / I’ll think of you night and day / You’ll wish me well / I’ll miss you so much / More than words can tell.” And then the last line; “Old pal of mine / Your day has come.” This is more than just the last song; it’s a finale in the sense of a final parting. Sad stuff, though not without a note of optimism; “But we won’t have changed / We’ll remain as one / Please rise and shine / Old pal of mine.”

Click once to expand, again to magnify

As much as I like this album I can see my review doesn’t contain the same level of excitement I had over The Felice Brothers.  I can now see the difference between the two albums quite clearly. This really is the slower of the two, much more morbid and concerned with death and nostalgia in a somber way, whereas The Felice Brothers was more murder ballads. I think someone gets shot in every song on that album. I think the former album had superior hooks though and it was lyrically more playful than this one. Although Yonder examines mortality in a way that ties the whole album together nicely.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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