First published on www.13thfloor.co.nz
The wonderful Felice Brothers (2 real and several ‘adopted’) are back again, and the world is better for it. Bringing with them is their own fairy tale version of America, a place that can no longer exist in this bitter world of shopping mall terrorism and the shakier foundations of a country bleeding pus in the Trump-era.
Properly recorded in a farm setting, complete with clucking chickens and the faint hum of a tractor or two, you’d almost expect John Denver to burst in at any moment. Although these guys, in reality, spend their days commuting New York’s L train circuit their hearts and musical aspirations belong in their own ‘Dylanesque’ Americana. I hate the expression, but it really does fit. It’s a collection enhanced and perfected by wheezing accordions, ye-haw fiddles and folkie tales about long-fergot-ten bandits and vagabonds.
Pure Smithsonian escapism if you, like me, grew up watching Daniel Boone, you’ll love this. It’s a rustic mix, the occasional barn dance is close to hand, with a deceptively homely backdrop – a clever vehicle for songs that do subtly but powerfully address the modern world, albeit by allowing you to escape it.
It’s a shortish set, but buried in these nine songs are many moments of cynicism. There are pawned wedding dresses, houses and cars sold in “rich man’s wars” – a nod to the recent global economic crisis. Ian Felice’s lyrics walk a thin line between the darkest black humour and damn right evil but their troubling imagery is musically exuberant. Plunder, for example, is the story of a dog called Archibald but suddenly and bizarrely starts referencing a schoolgirl drowning. It’s blusey and feels like it came straight from Bob, via John Cougar Mellancamp.
Elsewhere there’s other Americana, this time in a more suburban situation with the Springsteen styled Triumph ’73, which closely tracks the slower moment on The River or Philadelphia. It’s a break up of sorts “Town is watching as I pass, throwing shadows on the working class…” You can hear the rejection as another blue-collar factory worker slips out of town, minus his final redundancy check.
There are a coupla great honky tonk tunes in here. Like Dancing on the Wing, a 4/4 time stream of consciousness ho-down-town brown: “Was it Edison that sells the medicine. I could sure use some retailing, from him.” And so it goes…
Grimly funny Jack At The Asylum is a terrific, characterful song with just a hint of a barn dance in the undercurrent. Completing the album is a beautiful closer, Sell the House, which totally captures the all too painful scene of a family break-up and the drift away of individuals, like ripples spreading on the water.
They spread out in the soundtrack moments, the credits roll like the inventory list of a failed relationship. “Sell the house, sell the car, take the kids to Jacksonville, give the kids for the Father they miss.” It’s always that way. Mum gets the kids and the responsibility. Dad gets the isolation and the heartbreak. Not to labour the pun, but this one makes a sufficient splash. The brothers continue on their own parallel universe. If their music was a movie, it’s Wim Wenders or Lar van Trier interpretation of middle America. A fantasy reality, alternate universe.