Graded on a Curve:
The Felice Brothers,
Life in the Dark

I’ve said it before, goddamn it, and I’ll say it again: The Felice Brothers are the best folk and country rock group to come our way since The Band. Strong words, I know; but I’ve seen them live on numerous occasions and listened to their LPs more times than I can count, and I’ve come to the conclusion there’s something in the drinking water of those Catskill Mountains both they and The Band called home that is pure glory.

And I’m happy to report that Life in the Dark is the Felice Brothers at the top of their game, veering from hillbilly tunes to murder ballads to the best nonsense tunes to come our way since Dylan and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes in that famous pink house in West Saugerties, New York. Life in the Dark will break your heart, it will send you reeling, and it will make you smile at the sheer absurdity of life, and an album, no album, can do you any better than that.

The Felice Brothers are Ian Felice on guitar and lead vocals, brother James Felice on accordion, keyboards, and vocals, Greg Farley on fiddle, and Josh Rawson on bass, and they recorded Life in the Dark in a garage on a farm in the lovely Hudson Valley. The results speak for themselves; you’ll come away, I kid you not, from listening to Life in the Dark, with its rich musical textures and Ian Felice’s distinctive voice and always surprisingly lovely lyrics, with a new appreciation for the joys and sadness, to say nothing of the imponderable mystery, of this life.

As familiar with the folk tradition as they are with classic rock, The Felice Brothers carry the history of American music on their backs like a bag of gold coins, and happily empty that bag at our feet. “Aerosol Ball” is a happy-making number, heavy on the fiddle, tambourine, and accordion, and it bounces along while Ian Felice tosses off non sequiturs (“The rain in Maine/Is made of novacaine/In the Florida Keys/It’s made of antifreeze/In Maryland, it’s made of heroin/In Minnesota/It’s made of baking soda”) before getting down to business, namely his love for the “Doll of St. Paul/At the aerosol ball/She’s such as special girl/She’s been all around the world.” But I would be remiss not to quote the song’s most wonderful lines, to wit: “Well the cat ate the rat/And the beast ate the cat/And the boy ate the beast/And the beast made him fat.”

Meanwhile, “Plunder” mines the same territory; it opens with some really raucous chicken-wire guitar, after which Ian Felice tosses off lots of nonsense before getting to the chorus: “Plunder, plunder rain and thunder/Lightning split my brain asunder.” Then he plays more raucous guitar, and is followed by Farley playing some equally scratchy fiddle, then by “Dr. James Felice” on some truly funky organ. It’s one savage and rawbone tune, and even includes some political commentary, as does the midtempo “Jack at the Asylum,” which boasts a great fiddle opening, over which Felice sings, “I’m in the looney bin/With dead fish, the air conditioning/I got a ticket for your grand finale/It’s a hundred and thirty in Death Valley.” The song then proceeds to take America to the woodshed (“Hiroshima and the lynching tree”) after which the band sings the chorus, “America/America/You give me nightmares.” Then to the backing of some whistling Felice laments, “I’ve thought of running off/But where would I go?/I wouldn’t make it beyond Buffalo.”

It’s a heartbreaking song, in its way, as is “Life in the Dark,” a doleful lament that livens up long enough for Felice to sing, “I’d love to see you/Where the bluebirds grind their corn/I’d love to see you/In that old house where we were born.” And if those lines don’t break your heart, brother, you don’t have one. “I dream of a world without war,” he sings, but he doesn’t sound at all optimistic, and the song ends with Felice singing, “Sorrow seeps through the floor/It covers me/Like waters cover the sea/I don’t know why.” We fall in love and we die, he sings, and he hopes to see his love again when the angels blow their horns.

“Triumph ‘73” opens on a sad note as well, with Felice singing to the accompaniment of a haunting guitar, “I know those steps lead to your door/But I won’t be climbing them no more/There’s too many boys been down that way before/I’d rather be on my Triumph ’73.” He’s heading straight out of town as the rain falls, the song grows lovelier by the moment, and Felice bids adieu as the song reaches a crashing climax and he’s doing “95 in the passenger lane/Chasing the wind,” on his Triumph ‘73. “Sally” is a good-old fashioned barn stomp, heavy on the fiddle and accordion, and I like everything about it but the vocals, which are pitched strangely high in a kind of falsetto. Wish the boys had sung it straight, the way they do such numbers as “Cumberland Gap,” but hey, them’s the breaks.

“Diamond Bell” tells the sad story of “a kid from Arkansas” who hooks up, fatally, with the bandit Diamond Bell. They teamed up, camping out by the Union rail, and so they would have continued had they not been hired to kill a judge, which leads Diamond Bell to say, “We’re going on a Kansas killing spree.” And sure enough she shoots the judge right between the eyes right there in the courtroom, after which they make a dash across the plains. She escapes but he awakens to find himself to handcuffed to a hotel bed post, which leads him to sing, “Diamond Bell/Where are you now?/Over the meadow/Through the trees.” And while she will live on in the songs of Mexican girls all he has to look forward to is the gallows, “pitiful prisoner that I’ve become.”

As for “Dancing on the Wing” it’s another full-sprung fiddle-propelled hoedown, and opens with Felice singing, “Are you still with him/Big old Country Jim?/Or was it Edison who sells the medicine?/I could use some Ritalin from him.” The lyrics are positively cracked (“Me and Darlene called it quits/You almost blew your brains to bits/Then came Marilyn, she was a Methodist/But suffered from epileptic fits”), in a joyous and incomprehensible way, the fiddle solo is super, and all Felice wants to know, before he takes a scratchy turn on guitar followed by a brief accordion solo by brother James, is whether she’s dancing on the wing of a plane headed for California.

“Sell the House” is the song’s strangest and most ambitious track, and it will break your heart or your money back. To some sad guitar strumming Felice sings, “Put the TV on the lawn/With the bicycles and boots/Take your wedding dress to pawn/Take my pistol and my suit.” Because Felice is singing about a marriage that has come asunder, and everything must go, although Felice sings, “I remember long ago/In that brown Catskill school snow/Oh the life we dreamed of way back then.” Now it has come down to a family separated and a house and car for sale, “and one last kiss before I’m gone.” Then a single drum beat takes over, and the song seems like it’s over but no, the accordion sparks up like redemption, and Felice sings lustily about the indefatigable nature of the human spirit: “To chain me to the earth/It would take a length of chain/Twenty-five thousand miles long/I have always been and I will see no end/Twenty-five million days long/And that’s a long length of chain/And that’s a long time to wait.” I love the way the boys stretch out that “long” to absurd lengths, and the sad fiddle that comes in, before Felice sings, “I will always be/Like the ever-changing sea,” and it’s downright spiritual, an affirmation in the face of life’s unending chain of misfortunes.

The Felice Brothers just keep getting better and better, and if you think my comparison to The Band is far-fetched it’s elucidating to remember that, while The Band really put out two great studio albums—I heard Levon Helm himself say just that in a documentary I watched last night, and I’ve always agreed—The Felice Brothers have put out about ten, and I’ll attest to the stellar quality of every single one of them. Ian Felice’s word play, the band’s ability to move effortlessly across America’s historical music landscape; I could go on, but I’m off, on a Greyhound bus, to hunt me down the Doll of St. Paul. She’s such a special girl, she’s been all around the world, and I want to lie down beside her in a cheap motel bed and take some solace there.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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