Graded on a Curve:
The Felice Brothers,

The Felice Brothers have released their first album in three years and all everybody’s talking about is how it’s this big POLITICAL STATEMENT. Hell, vocalist/guitarist Ian Felice has more or less said as much. But me, I don’t buy it. Sure, a couple of the songs on Undress address the deplorable state of the nation, but Ian ain’t (despite his declaring his candidacy for the job of President in “Special Announcement”) really a political guy, or a topical songwriter even. He’s just an empathetic soul who wants us all to get naked and love one another.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the Felice Brothers are the most talented bunch of yokels to come out of the Hudson Valley since Bob Dylan and the Band, and unlike them the brothers are native sons. Ian Felice is a bona fide great American poet, one who has taken it upon himself to limn–with images and words that startle and dazzle–just how hard it is to live and love and ache in a world where half of your decisions have already been made for you and the ones you’re free to make on your own so often turn out to be bad ones. And he’s not blind to the joys of living either.

Ian Felice is a one-man tent revival meeting, and the band’s albums may as well be oversized communion wafers. I listen to them and I feel washed clean. Does that sound like bullshit? I don’t care. The simple truth is the Felice Brothers, both on record and as a live act, move me more than anybody playing music period. Lots of people say the same thing about Bruce Springsteen, but I’ve seen the Boss and listened to the Boss and these guys are better.

The Felice Brothers have been playing their unique brand of folk-rock for 13 years now, and Undress is something special, to wit, their most engaging effort since 2005’s The Felice Brothers. The band has a new bass player, and sadly fiddle player Greg Farley is gone, and the overall sound continues to grow more polished, but Ian Felice’s Hudson Valley hillbilly’s yowl is still one of a kind, the band whip-snap tight. And the new bunch of songs are stronger than ever.

The horn-happy and pop-friendly title track and lead-off cut is the most blatantly topical; an idealistic plea that owes a debt to Allen Ginsberg, it has Felice telling everybody from the Bank of America to the Brooklyn Bridge to Kellyanne Conway to take it all off in the name of peace, love and understanding, but it concludes on a despairing note–“When,” sings Felice, “Will we find our way?” “Holy Weight Champ” tells the story of a man who’s disinvesting himself of everything; “I could never rejoice/For a gold Rolls Royce/He threw his keys into the crater.” It strikes the same spiritual note as the joyous “Take This Bread” off The Felice Brothers, but it’s more somber.

“Special Announcement” also sounds a political note, albeit a sprightlier and more light-hearted one; Felice is saving up his money to be President (cuz the office can obviously be bought!), but you’ll like his campaign promises–more berries on Blueberry Hill, Charlie Parker on the ten dollar bill–he’s even going to burn down the Stock Exchange! But don’t mistake him for a populist–”The people want glory,” he sings, “And the people won’t wait/They wanna eat their enemies/And lick the bloody plates.” It’s pretty obvious he’s watched a Trump Rally or two.

Nobody sounds a melancholy note as well as Felice, and he outdoes himself on the haunting “Nail It on the First Try.” You get Felice on piano and brother James on accordion, and a set of lyrics so stark and abbreviated I can quote them in their entirety: “Move the curtain aside/I need a straight shot at the sky/I’ve never been so scared in my life/But then again, I’ve never died/I think I’m gonna nail it on the first try.” A masterpiece in miniature, this one.

“Poor Blind Birds” is another high and lonesome sad one; Felice begins by telling his lover “we live in a world we can’t understand” but as the song goes on we learn she’s long gone; “Since you’ve been dead/These seven years/I’ve seen you twice in a glass of red brandy and ice/As the sky filled with golden spears/And hung a wreath in the hour of grief.” As for “TV Mama,” it’s a pedal steel guitar and piano-driven mid-tempo country number; seems the only thing that’s keeping Ian keeping on is his TV mama with her sunglasses on.

Me, I always enjoy the band’s rollicking sing-alongs; they’ve got a madcap hillbilly on a tear energy to ‘em. But on “Salvation Army Girl” they forgo the fiddle and accordion for a straight-ahead four-to-the-floor rock and roll beat, which ain’t to say the song won’t pick you up and carry you along in a headlong rush. It gives great horn, the drums are right up front, and the lyrics are a hoot;–“All the junkies here agree/She looks a lot like Jackie Kennedy/You ought to see it, man, the way she glides/Whistlin’ ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’.”

“Jack Reminiscing” is the best of the fast ones; over a rumbling and bumping beat Felice sings about dads and sons and how the latter tend to grow up to be just like the former. “Well my pa was always in gloom,” he sings, “And his hat was made of raccoon/He was drunk in the afternoon/Nearly every day…” As for the son: “Oh, I was an Eagle Scout/With a trumpet I’d stomp and shout/And I’d sing of the Arkansas trout/And I’d sleep in the hay, hey.” But time passes and life has a way of beating the stomper and shouter out of the most carefree souls, and now Ian is always in gloom, and his hat is made of raccoon, and I think you get the idea–the apple, alas, rarely falls far from the tree.

“Days of the Years” is a wordy meditation on sprawling life; Felice wanders back and forth in both time and space–one minute he’s “standing tall in cap and gown” and musing about “a house that’s since torn down,” the next he’s “mopping up gore from a butcher’s floor/Feeling clean as a new drug store.” The ends on a note that anybody who’s familiar with the final hours of Hank Williams will recognize: “The jaws of life and the jaws of death/Hearing secrets in a dying breath/In a black four-door sedan/Down the road to the end of the world.” We’re all riding that lost highway into a sun that sets too fast.

“The Kid” is a honky-tonk murder ballad that doesn’t (alas) measure up to the great “Frankie’s Gun”; “Hometown Hero”’s the tale of a feller that just got out of the penitentiary and is coming back home, and I get the strange sense he’s happier about his return (on Independence Day, no less) than anybody else is. “Throw your man his own parade” sings Felice, before delivering a sly description of the “minor” contretemps that send him to the penitentiary in the first place: “You crack one face at a Pirates game/They don’t care who you are, they just put you away.” Strip away the accordion and banjo and piano and rat-a-tat drums and what you have here is a song that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on the Boss’ Nebraska LP, and that’s a compliment.

On closer “Socrates” Felice stands guilty of writing songs and is sentenced to death, but unlike poor Socrates Felice won’t be drinking hemlock–he’s going to the stake. He’s jovial enough to sing a sarcastic “Health to the tyrant/Health to the modern state,” and media savvy enough to know his burning will be a hit (“What a great event I’ll make/All of the ratings will soar/High as the war”)–hell, he’s even forgiving enough to ask his followers to let it be (“No more bloodshed, my friends/Seek no revenge”). But one thing he isn’t is blind to the way the world works; ”If you take the tyrant’s head,” he sings, “They put a tyrant in his stead.”

Every Felice Brothers album is an event and cause for celebration; they’re as close as you’ll come to the Band as any band since the Band, but unlike the Band they didn’t shoot their wad after two LPs–these boys just keep producing greatness. Do I have reservations about their newer and more streamlined sound? Sure. Do I wonder if the words on Undress are as great as the ones on some of their earlier albums? Yes. But these guys are an American treasure, and I’m still waiting for them to get their proper due.

Wake up America!

And while you’re at it, undress. Are you listening, Kellyanne Conway?


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  • Sebastian

    Thanks for this fun read about an extraordinary band. Maybe next time make sure you make a distinction between Ian and Felice so it doesn’t just say “Felice sings…” when you’re actually referring to James instead of Ian. Cheers!


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