The Felice Brothers, Celebration, Florida, 2011

I’ve taken my time with this album, letting it grow slowly since my copy arrived in the mail back in May this year. I’ve been putting off reviewing this for a couple of reasons. One is that I really wanted to like it, seeing as Felice Brothers have featured so prominently on my radar in the past two years with the much more rootsy-Americana efforts of albums past. But therein lay the problem — they’ve changed their aesthetic to some kind of weird semi-electronic hybrid that’s not entirely satisfying. I mean there are two or three insanely catchy anthemic pop choruses here, but it’s mixed up amid new Industrial-Felice and old Americana-Felice. The latter tends to get buried, seemingly out of place behind the more exciting  or grimly contemporary sounding songs. It’s a weird old listen, an album of two halves.

I’ve also found it difficult to review because the lyrics are obscure stories filled with American cultural touchstones. It takes some really dedicated listening to figure out what Ian’s on about. Hence it’s difficult to discern the message behind the medium. With the Felices, I usually rely on the tones and emotions of the songs, but Celebration is more modernist pop (or post-modernist, rather) in the socially conscious vein. There’s swathes of strange left-turns in here too, some successful, some not. The title of this album refers to a city called ‘Celebration’ in Florida, sort of an artificial town constructed by Disneyworld. This town is mentioned in the track ‘Honda Civic’ with allusions of beneath-the-veneer criminality.

Reviewing releases from the past few years is also fraught with difficulty because of the existence of so many internet-based music mags. It becomes difficult to say anything new, so you end up repeating information available elsewhere, some of which was probably dumped directly off a record company release sheet. The anxiety of influence sets in. About the only thing I can say in my defense here is that I write as a fan with no pretence to objectivity.

So, all disappointment aside, there’s still plenty here to enjoy. My overall gripe is that unlike The Felice Brothers and Yonder Is The Clock, Celebration, Florida’s mish-mash of influences, sounds and styles just doesn’t gel across the whole eleven songs like those earlier two albums. Celebration can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to wholly embrace the new aesthetic or cling to the old, and so we get an odd blend of old Felice and new Felice, hence my initial reservations. However, it’s good to be challenged, good to have yer apple cart upset, so let’s the let songs speak for themselves. Yo Bumstead, set the diamond for the heart of Florida.

Fire At The Pageant…is a wild song to open with. Lyrically it seems to be about a dead chap – “Harlan’s papa” – getting up out of his grave and going downtown to set fire to the pageant. How’s that for cool? At first we get a lone tambourine, some odd musique concrete and a Spanish sounding guitar arpeggio in a minor key. The musique concrete builds up to a crescendo before the song starts proper. When the chorus rips it sounds like absolute chaos with James Felice yelling “One two four five six seven eight nine thousand,” followed by Farley shouting, “Everybody calm down / Please stop shouting,” and a children’s choir; “Go on run / Call nine one one” and everyone together, “Calm down / Calm down / Calm down.” The intensity of it makes you feel like panicking. Says inside the LP that they recorded this in Old Beacon High School, Beacon, NY, so some of that musique concrete is like banged locker doors and whatever else they had to hand. The song goes through some pretty radical changes of pace during the verses. Of old dead Mister Harlan; “Mama’s so mad cos she can’t scare him off / Even if she’s wrapped in a table cloth / Oh Lord, what is Ma to do?” then back to the chorus which is huge, and very melodic. Trés cool way to open an album.

Container Ship…again, some really peculiar percussion effects. “I can see a container ship in the sea / Came all round the world from old Japan / I wonder if it has a dance band,” sings Ian in a lonely voice, and his main supporting instrumentation is a piano with a faint woozy organ sound. Suddenly, the whole thing goes all trippy and dreamy, a very cool thumpity kind of rhythm with a sweeping synth. But the main piano melody remains slow, keeping it all swirly-headed with the extraneous noises all circling the tune like a tornado in slow motion. Overall though, it’s a quiet affair. Eerie organ sound takes over from the piano. And the final lyrics, “But what if the pirates come.” Again, what on earth is this about? It’s like he’s just looking out the window, daydreaming about the other side of the world. I love these narrative hooks Ian Felice comes up with.

Honda Civic…nice rhythmic opening with slow box concertina then the song launches straight into its loud thumping melodic first verse. “He’s got the money to buy the bluuuuuue car,” sings Ian through autotunes which sounds great given that the dude already has an odd warble in his voice so that now he sounds like a wailing robot. There’s brass punctuating the rhythm turning this into danceable soul…pause…and back to the funky speedy verse section. “I can see my fiancée / In the passenger side / I got a bad suspicion / They’re planning a Florida trip / … / I’ll race the nation towards Celebration / There’s a confrontation at the Wonderbread warehouse downtown / Security cameras are mounted on the gate / 1998 / Three shots in the windshield / Four in the passenger side / Now there’s mass confusion clogging up the interstate.” I get the feeling someone’s on the run from the law in a Honda Civic. “Race, race and pivot / I could do that with a Honda Civic.” Another odd song, but awfully catchy and exciting. I mean, so far the album seems layered with a need-to-listen-to-it-lots-of-times complexity. Such a big change from their last album.

Oliver Stone…opens with a piano, a warped keyboard sound and Ian in nostalgia mode. “Oliver Stone, Oliver Stone / You really love the movies / Oh what a night for dancing with the one you love / Sunset Hill, Sunset Hill / I really miss those parties / Oh what a life we lived then / I guess that’s come and gone / Somewhere in space / Those parties still remain / I need to find how that ladder’s climbed / I’ll catch a cab from there to witness your premiere.” They use what sounds like a keyboard-produced version of a bowed saw that recalls Mercury Rev, another Catskills band. This sounds like wide-open spaces, looking up into a field of stars. The song sort of moves like a wave through its vibe, swelling and falling, always those piano chords and Ian’s lonesome voice, before someone pulls out a tuba. “Oliver Stone, Oliver Stone / I feel your sets have vanished.” Is he yearning to be lost in the movies? Is he even serious? I can’t quite figure this one out, but to me it evokes the same kind of nostalgic feel you hear all over Yonder Is The Clock.

Ponzi…starts with a radio dial being turned, first a woman’s voice, then a little section of Ian singing a completely different song and playing a guitar quietly with little washes of static over it. That gets wiped out and replaced by a 60s movie dialogue sample: “Where is your husband / Where did he get the money?” And a woman answers “I don’t know.” Then the piano starts playing this little up-down piece with a kind of mysterious vibe. “Bowling green / Perfect place for girls to meet boys / Don’t go skipping around where you’re not invited.” There’s something sinister in the way he sings it, a stop start kind of bassline. When the chorus comes on, the other band members all tenor lightly in the background and it sounds beautiful. More weird radio-dial changing leading into the next verse. The lyrics here tell some story in that very poetic way Ian has, just providing glimpses, snippets, leaving it up to the listener to piece the puzzle together. But I’m finding on these songs, unless you concentrate specifically on lyrics (which I rarely do) it’s virtually impossible to get a grasp on what it’s all about. This one seems to be about a Wall Street schmuck who gets done for fraud. The girl with him? Her parents find out from watching the news. “Turn on the TV / It’s your daughter Mr. Kain.” Truly great track though. Probably my favourite one here. Then the song changes gear completely into this pulsing electronic bassline, while the anthemic chorus starts up: “How did it end this way / Mr Kain?” And there’s even a school bell ringing in there at one point. Then the whole lot of ‘em start chanting a fantastic anthem “Woooooh / woo-woo-ooh / How did it end this way / Mr. Kain? / Hey / Ho / Hey / See.”  Brilliant. Put it on the car stereo. Drive around town. Sing your lungs out.

Back In The Dancehalls…thudding electronic drum beat, lone high cello sound, quite menacing sounding, while Ian intones repeated lines like “The honeymoon is over / The honeymoon is over” and “I’m a fool for the latest trends / I’m a fool for the latest trends.”  That heavy beat keeps thudding, the cello keeps playing, the whole thing is very sparse. Are they er…trying to do a Radiohead here? I can’t tell why they’ve chosen to go this way – it doesn’t suit them – the programming that is. I mean good on them for completely changing the formula. I just don’t think this is the right formula for them. Having said that, this is still an interesting experiment in sound. I just don’t see electronic programming and The Felice Brothers as sitting very comfortably in the same mould. But then, at the end he sings, “Damn it feels good to be back again.” Is he talking about the 80s? The violin section towards the end is really pretty but it only lasts a few seconds. This side of the album needs a lot more dedicated listening to than the first in order to really enjoy it.

Dallas…watery noises, a lone guitar, some heavy slow piano chords, various bits of musique concrete weighing down the background. “Ocean of stars / Why’ve I gone so far? / I miss my home / I hear those engines drone / Just a three night run at the Palace / And I’ve never in my life felt so alone.” Beautiful falsetto on these lines. Seems to be about some hotshot TV show host being very cynical about his life. The pace here, similar to ‘Back In The Dancehalls’ is glacial slow. This song is actually quite amazing. Lots of slightly dissonant violins and things start building up in the background. Hey this could even be a Felice take on the Tindersticks. But my gripe is that Ian’s voice doesn’t suit the weird-arty vibe or the robot-sterile schtick. They’re more of a roots band and they rock more in the ragged freak country mode than the weird art mode.

Cus’s Catskill Gym…and speaking of rock, this launches with a huge rock beat and more of that grim tonal thing, submerged creepy bassline and echoey noises in the background, before that hard industrial riff thumps out its doomy vibe. This side of the album is seriously different from the other side. “Stay away from Don King” repeats Ian, before the line, “Burn down old Vegas strip burn down / Burn down old Cus’s Gym burn down.” The pumping beat starts speeding up, and then Ian does what he’s so good at – raising his voice into seriously scornful tones. What’s he scorning? This seems to be another song about a boxer, presumably Mike Tyson, given that he refers to “Iron Mike” but from Wikipedia we learn that “Iron Mike is uniquely American slang used to refer to men who are especially tough, brave, and inspiring.” (There was also a song about a boxer on Tonight At The Arizona).

Refrain…very eighties synth sound with more heavily digitized hardcore percussion. In fact all four tracks on this side have started in much the same way – a heavy doomy riff mixed with an annoy-the-neighbours drumbeat. And all of them have eschewed any sense of an obvious melody for atmospherics. You don’t hear much about this side of the album in most online reviews. All the immediately likable songs are on Side One. You get to Side Two and it’s like, okay, so I was wrong – this is not “Americana-Felice” so much as semi-futuristic Felice, angry-grim, and not really succeeding at supplanting their normally magnificent songwriting skills and use of wonderfully ‘authentic’ instrumentation with some kind of dystopian aesthetic. Now if the whole album had been like this, it might have cohered better. This side has really grown on me after close listening though.

Best I Ever Had…but of course, we get to this song, and sure enough, we’re back to Yonder Is The Clock Felice. This is also as slow as a broken clock, so it fits with the mood, but it’s played on a crisply recorded acoustic guitar, with just Ian’s voice for company. The lyrics are amazing, very poetic – check this out: “Saturn’s bright / The kids have scattered / Half of all I own is in my fist.” And I would say this is my favourite song on Side Two so far. There’s another thing that’s been lost between this album and Yonder – the swapping around of lead vocals. It seems to be exclusively Ian here. Simone Felice left the band after their last album and went solo, doing his own rootsy thing. Creative differences?

River Jordan…and again, huge echoey drum beat thumped out very slowly. So apart from ‘Best I Ever Had,’ we’ve got five out of six tracks doing exactly the same thing. It’s as if they said, “Man, we need to update our sound to 2025” as it was conceived of by the Eurythmics in 1984 or Tricky in 1998. This is almost retro-futurist. I’m afraid to say, I don’t think it suits Ian’s voice. If you’re gonna do any kind of  old school Web 2.0 rock, ditch playing the guitar with a plectrum, I say, and process it Fennesz-style. This song moves at snail pace; there’s all sorts of somber keyboard tones,with angular electric guitar parts and towards the end, Ian Felice just gets really pissed off: “F*ck the news / F*ck the House of Blues / F*ck my whole career / You don’t want me here.” This gets pretty cool from here on in. The singing is more like yelling, and it’s scary and real. Ian just wants to go “Back to the land I once knew / Back to the sand / Back home again.” If I was to interpret this, I get the feeling he’s somehow talking about why they’ve made this album sound like this. On the first track Side Two he sang, “I’m a fool for the latest trends.” Perhaps the next Felice album will be a return to what the Felice Brothers do best, and this album is a two-finger salute to all those who’ve hated on ‘em, like, er… Pitchfork, who completely mis-reviewed The Felice Brothers and didn’t even bother reviewing Yonder Is The Clock.

Click once to expand, again to magnify

A postscript is in order, I feel. Even though, having listened to Side Two a lot more recently in preparation for this review, I still feel the whole album doesn’t gel into a satisfying form. That of course is wholly based on my prejudices. I like albums that seemed to work as a unified piece. Once I put this LP away, I can’t see that I’ll pull it out again in quite some time. And when I finally do, guarantee I’ll love it and find myself eating these words. Conflicted or what?

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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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