Okay, so I landed a copy of this on vinyl two years after getting into The Felice Brothers and Yonder Is The Clock which have been two of my favourite albums in recent years. Tonight At The Arizona is a bit of a rarity on vinyl – it took some serious patience searching the web to get my hands on a copy. I had high hopes for it, given how much I love those other two albums, but it does remind me that all bands have to start somewhere – this is The Felice Brothers 1.0. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – not by any stretch – but it definitely sounds like the prototype for how The Felice Brothers would pan out in their subsequent releases. I’m reviewing this retroactively, although I have spent enough time over the past couple of months with it for it to develop its own personality in my mind. And what a personality. All the trademarks of The Felice Brothers’ sound is here – cracked country vocals, banjo-esque instrumentation, ramshackle aesthetic – and in some ways it seems even more authentic given that they must have had a pretty minimal following at this stage of their career. To condense the foregoing into a soundbite: The Felice Brothers had their schtick down pat right from the beginning. I dig this band even if this debut (of sorts) falls a little short.
Tonight At The Arizona comes with comprehensive liner notes on the back sleeve – a neat old-fashioned touch. In fact, let’s quote some of Gabe Soria’s enthusiastic words, from February, 2007:
Dirtbags capturing lightning and spinning it into harvest gold. That’s what you’re holding in your hands, right here. … They’re a bunch of slouching Hudson River pirates … They’re a harvest festival, a late-night meal of greasy roast chicken and a stolen bottle of red wine shared with friends, and a woozy summer night filled with the promise of love, danger, barbecue and fireworks all rolled into one. All of that is in the vinyl of this record you’re holding here right now. As is the lightning.
The main point worth repeating here is this: during the recording of this album, in the middle of ‘Hey Hey Revolver,’ there was a storm raging outside. Lightning struck the “leaky, abandoned Shakespeare theatre” they were recording in and nearly knocked their equipment out. What ensues in the recording is a loud crack, a huge dip in the sound, and then a series of menacing thunder rolls in the background as the band continue to play. That indeed is a cool background story for an album. Hey, it may not even be true. Who cares if it isn’t? The songs are good and that’s what counts. So, uh, roll out a commentary already, Bumstead.
Roll On Arte…is a slow acoustic song and Ian’s on the microphone with that familiar nostalgic glow of a voice. I shouldn’t really compare it to anything on an album that came after this but it reminds me of say, ‘Helen Fry.’ The chorus, “Roll on Arte / Roll on / Your heart’s too good for this town / Your eyes cast through the glass / At my so sorry mannequin frown.” The tune is at once familiar and new. Ian’s voice has that shaky quality that adds a strong emotive colouring to the song, which seems to be about this one person, Arte, that makes Ian feel good about himself. A tribute to a good friend?
Ballad Of Lou The Welterweight…uses box concertina to create an old time feel before Ian Felice launches straight in with the chorus; “Powder your nose / Pull off your pantyhose / Let me love you from behind.” How’s that for a memorable line? Again, this has a strong feeling of nostalgia, and I love how Ian’s voice wavers wildly on the thin edge of a breaking point, like, in tune, but only just. The song’s all about Louie, a boxer who gets hit in the eighth round and dies. His woman is watching this – though whether it’s Louie’s woman or the singer’s is unclear and that’s what makes the song interesting. It has a memorable tune.
Hey Hey Revolver…after about twenty seconds of an acoustic guitar, the lightning strikes, the sound drops out then comes back in with five seconds of fuzzy thunder. Meanwhile, Ian Felice whisper-sings with his wasted vocal a song about a dude who seems to be contemplating suicide by revolver, given his down and out status. His wife ran off to become a TV star. He has plans he’d like to fulfill “if I ever make some cash some day.” The instrumentation is kept to a minimum – just two guitars by the sounds of it. It winds down. Like I said above, this sounds more like a model for the kind of songs The Felice Brothers would get better at by their 2008 and 2009 albums. The instrumentation on most of these is very simple and straightforward.
Your Belly In My Arms…and here we have Simone Felice on vocals and again, the instrumentation is similar to the previous song – just a lone acoustic guitar, with a wavery plaintive Cat Stevens-esque vocal. This is a broken sounding song. From what I can gather, he’s singing to his pregnant partner about how they’ll get through these trying times, although he may be singing about something that’s happened in the past and it may be that she’s left him already. It’s nice enough.
Lady Day…I read somewhere some cynic pointing out the similarity in title of this with Dylan’s ‘Lay, Lady, Lay.’ There might be a hint of intertextuality going on here, I suppose. But hey, Dylan wrote whole songs as a ‘tissue of quotations.’ But anyone versed in jazz history will know that ‘Lady Day’ was Billy Holiday’s nickname. Yet again, this is simple stuff – just Ian on vocals, and one or two acoustic guitars, but it’s not a strong crisp sound – a bit rough round the edges, as are all the songs here. Here, Ian seems to be pleading to his ‘Lady Day’ to please, please stay. It’s quite low-key stuff. The melody is quite pretty and Ian’s ‘pleading’ voice is doing a lot of the good work here. It’s still full of decay and resignation, which pretty much sums up the whole Felice Brothers’ aesthetic. I’m digging this song.
T For Texas…nice loud harmonica and simple strummed acoustic guitar. Then all the boys leap straight into the chorus; “T for Texas / T for Tennessee / Oh Lord, a T for Texas, a T for Tennesse / T for Thelma / That gal made a wreck out of me.” I am absolutely convinced this is a prototype for Frankie’s Gun. Key lyric; “I ain’t gonna marry / I ain’t gonna settle down / I’m gonna be around-a / Til the police shoot me down.” It’s a revenge song, set around a neat hook which relies on the whole group on the chorus for its punchy singalong chorus.
Rockefeller Druglaw Blues…is a quiet acoustic number all about a convict on his way to prison for dealing drugs. Ian sings this in a forlorn, sorry voice. He was really into his story-telling lyric style right from the start, which only gets better on subsequent albums. Chorus; “Fifteen grams of heroin / Fifteen ounces of speed / Fifteen years to life / Rockefeller, that’s a long old time.” Mood is despondent, created by the plodding bass and drums. Dude is in prison now, feeling blue. Reminds me a lot of the Willard Grant Conspiracy this one, with its off kilter viola, acoustic strum and abject subject matter. It doesn’t really resonate a whole lot though once the song’s over.
Mercy… “Show me mercy / Show me mercy / Mary girl / Bury this here gun and play my widow.” I’ll tell you what this reminds me of – I’ve got it at last – awful reference point to say the least, but it sounds like the more plaintive songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yup, I’ve just tainted Simone Felice’s otherwise quite nice singing voice for all time with that comparison, but I hear it, I hear it only too well.
Christmas Song…I guess this must be the fourth member of the Felice brothers on vocal, here – a chap called ‘Christmas.’ I don’t think you hear his solo voice on any subsequent albums. It’s quite lo-fi and subdued; his voice is really wavery and fragile, and the whole thing is over in under two minutes, meaning it sort of gets lost in the mix. Basically the song is about how old Christmas “just wasn’t made for these times.”
Going Going Gone…back to Ian Felice on vocals with just a lone acoustic guitar for support. This is also a fairly short number with a plaintive feel.
Take This Hammer (live)…is recorded in a bar somewhere replete with background crowd noises. The acoustic guitar sound is richer than on the recorded tracks. The song itself is one of the stronger ones here; “Take this hammer and carry it to the captain (x 3) / And tell him I’m gone / I don’t want no / Cornbread and molasses / It hurts my pride / I don’t want no congratulations (x 3) / It hurts my pride.” Ian gets really worked up here. The accordion comes on in full swing, while someone adds wild whooping in between vocal lines. The song is quite catchy even though the sound is a little messy. But I love Ian Felice’s more wild vocal here. He sounds great when he’s really pushing his voice. Yet again, I can’t help thinking this is an earlier version of something like … say ‘Take This Bread’ off The Felice Brothers.
So yeah, this is actually a really low-key affair. Even though the tunes are all very melodic and somewhat familiar, overall it sounds very much like an album of demos for the more convoluted and exciting recordings they would pursue on the follow-up album The Felice Brothers released in 2008. For the most part it’s just acoustic guitar, a bit of accordion, some drums and some great vocals. That’s the Felice Brothers’ strong point – their familiar, yet utterly unique combination of loose vocals. Coming at this album from 2011 though has diminished my enjoyment of it a little.
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