I’m a bit of a sentimental guy. Honestly. I don’t mean sentimental in the sense that I’ll cry at soppy movies or feel compelled to donate my money when one of those charity appeals for donkeys or whatever appears on the television. No; I’m sentimental in the sense that in some brilliant or pivotal moments in my life, I mightn’t display any visible emotion but I will treasure away the memory and do my best to preserve it for all of my days. And I do this quite often, and with certain things that may considered rather odd. For example, I can recall exactly what I was doing when I first watched Easy Rider and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and how monumental my experience of watching those films were. I can remember how I met many of the most important people in my life, even if it was because of a trivial thing such as mistaking them for another person. And I remember how I discovered this glorious CD.; The Felice Brothers’ 2008 self titled album. My father used to buy Uncut magazine to read about all the new music coming out, and each month they put together a free CD with the magazine containing choice tracks; either along some common theme or a pick of the best new music at the time. To be honest they were quite hit and miss, but it was a nifty little thing to do. One day I was casually listening to the usual mix of good-but-forgettable music when my mind was jump-started by a blast of accordion. Once I got over the initial shock I tuned in a bit closer and really enjoyed what I was hearing. It was country and bluesy but with a catchy, sing along chorus that didn’t betray its roots. I was captivated by the singer’s rusty, whiskey-soaked voice and his sardonic lyrics. The music was rich and the musicians were obviously really into what they were doing. Before the song was half way through I was convinced. This song was Frankie’s Gun, the third song from this wonderful album. I didn’t manage to acquire the rest of the album until Christmas 2008, when I rediscovered Frankie’s Gun, checked it out on last.fm and found that the entire album was being offered as a free, legal download. Two complete accidents that led me to finding one of the most enjoyable and beautiful albums of recent times.
The Felice Brothers hail from upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains and their music is strongly rooted in blues, folk and country. On this fantastic hour-long CD we get to hear the full range of their talents; from country tunes to melancholic ballads. They have been compared to Bob Dylan, and although everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Loudon Wainwright III has been, this time the connections are notable. Ian Felice does sound a bit like early Bob Dylan, but with a warmer, more approachable voice. To some extent the music sounds like Basement Tapes-era Dylan with The Band. But this is where the similarities end. While Dylan had a variety of influences from Beat writers to French symbolist poets, The Felice Brothers’ music is firmly grounded in old time Americana. Their world is one of beer drinkers, hustlers, moonshine bootleggers, fast women, orphans, brawlers, bawlers and bastards. There are women in loveless marriages to reckless men, men who shoot down their partners after discovering they have been unfaithful, ex-convicts, tall blondes, fathers who beat their sons, bums, drug addicts and so on. It’s evocative of the simpler times gone by. Imagine being in a bar in the old West, sitting chatting over a pint and listening to the house band performing. That’s the scene that The Felice Brothers conjure on this album. For example, Love Me Tenderly has a live feel, with some faux audience noise, faux audience interaction from the band and a real barrelhouse piano sound. As I said before, there are a few songs with a real sing along chorus (Frankie’s Gun being the best of them) and you can imagine sitting with some friends and egging the band on. The group’s accordions, organs, violins, guitars and group harmonies all contribute to this old time atmosphere.
I don’t remember the last time I heard an album that was so lyrically inventive. The Felice Brothers are great poets and storytellers. Goddamn You, Jim is a moody, Robert Frost-esque song about a couple who have lost their only son. It’s somehow packed into just three minutes but in that time we have a complete picture of this tragic family situation and how each of the parents are dealing with it. Or Don’t Wake The Scarecrow, where the singer makes plans to go away to Reno with his favourite prostitute, only to be informed she isn’t going in the last line of the song. The lyrics are tragic and inventive throughout the album and often with brilliant rhyming; my personal favourite being: “Spit make a fender shine, Frankie a friend of mine/Got me off a bender after long-legged Brenda died.” (In Frankie’s Gun) Not only are they poets, but also they can sometimes be pretty damn funny. “I lost my leg in the war,” begins Love Me Tenderly. “What war? The war of love…” Another choice example is this hilarious exchange from Wonderful Life: “We could hear Thelma and Louise/Makin’ love under the poplar trees/We could hear some screamin’/Sounded like a slaughterhouse.” I simply love their sense of humour on this album. As seriously as they take their music, they were obviously enjoying themselves while making this album.
The band is surprisingly mature though. They can tell a great story, (such as the drunkard who shoots his lover after discovering her infidelity in Whiskey in my Whiskey) deliver a tender ballad (“throw your arms around me, let’s keep this quiet/Hear our hearts in the distance like cannon fire,” from Wonderful Life) or sometimes both. Their songs are remarkably good and they sound well beyond their years.
I love this album. It’s always had that nice, homely feel about it for me. It sounds really fresh, authentic doesn’t die a death of overproduction. The context helps too; the band started out playing in New York City subways and recorded some of their songs in each other’s houses, basements and even chicken coops. When listening to them you get a sense that the songs they sing aren’t just fiction; it’s what they live and breathe. There are no pretensions about them, they’re just brazenly presenting to us their life in music form, warts and all.
Words - Adam