They’re back. My favorite band in the whole wide world, The Felice Brothers, have returned with more of their wonderful folk/country/rock tunes, and I couldn’t be happier. From The Band and Dylan-haunted Catskill Mountains they hail, bearing their load of unreconstructed joy and unbearable sorrow, ready to turn the room you’re sitting in right now into a stomping, brawling honky-tonk, where you can buy blow in the bathroom or rotgut at the bar or slow dance all by your lonesome at the edge of the chicken-wire-fronted stage, cheering on the rail-thin fellow with the fiddle as he saws out a rough-hewn, unbearably lovely melody.
Front man Ian Felice is back in all his ramshackle glory, telling stories like nobody else can. One of the greatest pleasures of listening to The Felice Brothers is Felice’s surreal word-slinging—the way he has of stringing lines together that never fail to take you by surprise. Well, you think, I certainly didn’t see that coming.
Take “Cherry Licorice,” where Felice sings, “I don’t wanna work for no dead waitress/I don’t have that kind of patience,” and “all the ladies and gents/Covered in excrement.” Or “Saturday Night,” where he sings, “I ain’t the Boss/But I’m his illegitimate son/Cuz baby I was born to run.” In “Meadow of a Dream” he comes up with, “I did my dishes/And threw ‘em out the window,” while on the Dylanesque “Constituents” he conjures up, like a magician, the lines, “Chasing monkeys through the rings of Hell/Suits me exceptionally well.”
Combine that with that lovely cracked voice of his, and throw in the band’s homespun instrumentation including fiddle, washboard, organ, and piano, and the band’s knack for coming up with melodies that somehow make you sad and happy at the same time, and presto—what you have is one of the most exciting bands in America. True, 2011’s Celebration, Florida constituted a setback of sorts, disappointing many hardcore fans with its modern electro and dancehall touches. I loved most of it, but worried about what it bode for the band’s future. I needn’t have sweated it, for new LP Favorite Waitress marks a full return to the band’s country- and folk-rock sound.
The band has switched labels (from Fat Possum to Dualtone) and made one line-up change since Celebration, Florida. Josh Rawson has replaced Christmas Clapton on bass. That still leaves Ian Felice on lead vocals, guitar, and piano; James Felice on accordion, organ, and piano; Greg Farley on fiddle; and David Estabrook on drums.
Favorite Waitress opens on a domestic note, with laughter and a barking dog introducing the exquisitely beautiful “Bird on Broken Wings,” which matches quiet verses complete with Felice’s acoustic guitar and some simple drumming by Estabrook up against big choruses with banjo and percussion while Felice sings, “And it’s fare thee well, my friend/I’ll see you at the promised end/Where the wind is laughter.” And on it goes after the second chorus, Felice cracking up at one point as Farley’s fiddle and James Felice’s accordion play and the band howl like coyotes. Then comes the raucous “Cherry Licorice,” in which Felice announces he has a new diet: “All I want to eat is cherry licorice/I don’t care if it sounds ridicklous” as Estabrook pounds away on the drums, James Felice squeezes his accordion, and Farley goes full-tilt boogie on the fiddle. “High along a hill/Through the thistle/Pass the factory/Cross the trestle/The teacher cut my wrists/For every class I missed,” sings Felice, before the song opens up and Felice sings, “Cuz I’m high on Halloween candy again/And your lips are… sweet as brandy!” while Farley’s fiddle goes wild and the whole band sings backup.
“Meadow of a Dream” is a lovely mid-tempo number with solemn verses and a divine chorus: “I was lost in the meadow of a dream/And you can say what you want/Be who you want/Oh I’ll be Butch Cassidy/And you can be the Sundance Kid.” And I love it when Felice sings, “Under the swinging bridge with a cigarette/The Heavens of Heaven of Heaven ain’t as nice I bet” to some simple guitar, accordion, and fiddle accompaniment, which is followed by some majestic dual singing leading up to Felice shouting, “Sundance! Can you hear me boy!” “Lion” opens with some great fiddle/accordion interplay, and about being a lion in the zoo. “I will get no rest,” sings Felice, “in this mirrored wilderness,” then is joined by the whole group, which sings, “And the crowd comes and goes/To what end no one knows,” before Farley’s fiddle and J. Felice’s accordion bring the tune to a close.
“Saturday Night” opens with drum beats, cymbals, and synthesizer, then Ian Felice comes in, his voice sliced and diced, singing against himself. “I’m the new Elvis!” he finally cries, his voice a rasp, “I’ve got a 100 girlfriends/They really bum me out.” James Felice’s accordion and some group singing constitute the chorus, then Ian returns, his voice cracking, until the band goes into a breakdown, and everybody sings, “Saturday night alone/Get out of bed!/The king asked me to watch the throne/Off with his head!/When I do/I only think of yooouuu!” A schoolgirl spreads her legs, Felice quotes Melville, somebody takes a Valium and has a vision, and on the final chorus someone whistles, and that’s all she wrote.
The great, slow, and solemn “Constituents” opens with a big organ and boasts gigantic drums, and has Felice singing, “And all my constituents agree/That I’ve been changed like a pebble in the sea/By the politics of time/But riddle me this/What happiness is mine?” Felice sings about Andy Warhol running down the street in his socks while Farley plays a wonderful fiddle, then James Felice plays some great cocktail piano, the fiddle comes back in, and Ian Felice sings, “I will see you when I take my rest/On the lunatic express.” And this one has The Basement Tapes written all over it, without in any way being a rip-off.
“Hawthorne” opens with some pretty piano by Ian Felice, but he undercuts it by immediately transporting us to a graveyard, where he sings about how the hawthorne grows “freely and wild/Like a human child” before the band goes into the rousing chorus, “Ba ba black sheep/Have you any wine?/Ba ba black sheep have you any of mine?/Wiiiiine?/Miiiine?/Have you got aany?” Felice then sings about a senator sleeping in his grave, dining on “centipedes and snails/The tongues of nightingales,” at which point the chorus gets repeated and Felice shuts it down with a “Myyyyyyy?/Hooooome?” “Katie Cruel” opens in a fever, then Felice sings, backed by electric piano and simple drumming, until the rollicking chorus, which features the whole band trading lines. Then Felice returns to sing, “I’ve been feeling fine/Ever since my execution/I’m living in my own abyss/Away from the miracle weapons/Away from the revolution,” before joining the whole band again in that rousing chorus that leads to a wild breakdown complete with great organ, drumming, and fiddle and everybody swapping lines before ending the song the way it started, in a fever.
Favorite Waitress’ least exciting track is “No Trouble,” which opens on a pretty note and features fiddleman Farley on lead vocals, singing to the accompaniment of drums and piano. “I don’t want no trouble/I just want things to be okay,” sings Farley, then Ian Felice strums his guitar, James Felice really lays into the piano, and Farley sings, “The birds they’re flying overhead/They dot a cloud like pepper on eggs,” while the song continues on to the chorus: “I know I won’t let you down/I know I won’t let you down/From the start to the finish/I’m gonna work hard every minute/And I know I won’t let you down.” It’s not a bad tune by any means; it’s short, pleasant, and an easy listener, its only problem is nothing jumps out at you, either lyrically or musically.
“Alien” opens with some spacey sounds and features Ian Felice playing acoustic guitar and singing, “When the man was a child/He came from space/In a big glass cage,” before the song explodes with drum crash and fiddle and Felice sings, “And he’s still living in this town/Down at the old San Marino/And the starlight is streaming down/Down on the old San Marino.” Felice then conjures up a creation myth in the second verse before the song explodes again and Felice sings, “They’re spinning their partners round/Down at the old San Marino” before repeating, “And he’s still living in this town/Down on the San Marino.”
“Chinatown” opens with some lovely atmospherics, and Josh Rawson singing about how your favorite waitress is gone and the “night is full of my….stery/We’ve got some his…tory” while some back-up singers add to the mood. Rawson’s singing is hard to make out, as foreign as Chinatown, but there’s talk of mutiny and a meeting in the coatroom, and Farley’s fiddle and James Felice’s electric piano are exquisite.
In any event, the next tune, “Woman Next Door,” is a total surprise—a full-bore, rip-roaring rave-up, complete with the biggest guitars The Felice Brothers have ever conjured up. There’s even a big “1,2,3,4” at the beginning, at which point Ian Felice’s guitar takes off like a jet plane, James Felice kicks into gear on piano, and Farley saws away on the fiddle. Meanwhile Ian Felice sings, “I came to a field of robins/I asked them if I’d ever fly/Some said never, never/Some said bye and bye.” Then there’s the raucous chorus, in which the whole band sings, “High on the old dance floor/In love with the woman next door/Oooooooh, bittersweeeeet!” Then, second verse, same as the first verse, and second chorus, same as the first chorus, at which point Farley kicks brief ass on the fiddle, James Felice lets loose on the piano, and Ian Felice lets out a great cry that sounds, believe it or not, like “One said Henry James!”
This is a Felice Brothers no one’s ever heard before, and it’s a great lead in to James Felice’s quiet opening vocals on “Silver in the Shadows,” the LP’s great plaintive piano-driven closer. The opening piano reminds me of The Eagles, but we’ll let that pass, because James Felice’s vocals are so earnest and soaring and lead into a sparse but effective Ian Felice guitar solo, and James Felice sings, “She’s your darling companion/And so thoughtlessly kind/Ride out to meet her/The day we surrr-viiiiiived!” while the band bursts open like a ripe fruit and Estabrook’s drums crash and Ian Felice lets rip on the guitar, playing notes that will tear your guts out, until James Felice returns to the piano to solemnly lead the song home.
The Felice Brothers summon up a mythical America that intermingles yesterday, today, and tomorrow, with scandalous romance, aliens, silver miners—you name it, and it’s bound to be swimming around in the Big Deep of Ian Felice’s fathomless imagination. But the real joy—or ecstasy, I should say—lies in the way the band gives his words life and depth and that timeless tin-type quality that I once associated solely with Dylan and The Band during a brief but magical period in West Saugerties, New York, but which I now associate with The Felice Brothers as well.
I don’t know what they have—some Pow-Wow magic that enables them to conjure up a time and place that is both utterly foreign and as familiar as the back of your hand—but they have it in spades. This is one band that, should they ever come asunder up, will truly break my heart. They’re that great. I can’t even imagine saying it, but I’ll say it anyway. Had it been The Felice Brothers hanging out with Bob Dylan at Big Pink, The Basement Tapes might even be more magnificent.
GRADED ON A CURVE: