The Felice Brothers
Most every musician has a signature stage behavior. For example, Tom Waits bends his arms and legs in crooked angles to form fractured silhouettes. Each Avett Brother has a style: Scott pops up and down on his knees and Seth shifts between his front foot and back. Thom Yorke's dramatic gyrations were put on full display in the music video for "Lotus Flower".
Ian Felice runs in place. Raking his aged arch-top with fingerpicks, he high-kicks his skinny legs like a cartoon character about to burst off in a cloud of smoke. Up to now, this behavior was an apt metaphor for the Felice Brothers: energetically running in place. There hasn't been a Felice LP that displays wholesale progress or evolution, despite brief flourishes of both on 2009's Yonder Is the Clock. Not that anyone was griping about it. Does any fan of slipshod folk-rock and bemoan a lack of evolution?
Fans may be content with the status quo, but it quickly became evident that the band wasn't. Crowd footage of new songs began circulating last year, songs with electronics and drum machines. I witnessed it myself back in November. Then in February of 2011, the band announced they'd landed on a different label (Fat Possum) and were readying their fourth LP proper, Celebration, Florida. The bizarre description of the record was as initially repugnant as a peanut-butter and spaghetti sauce sandwich:
"...an exhilarating amalgamation of frightening horn sections, unexpected 808s, ambient synth lines, schoolyard taunts, booming, primitive drum beats, heavy bass lines, piano, violin, accordion, ringing guitars, rave beats, and sinister acid jazz that captivates and mystifies."
My reaction was this: Celebration, Florida would either be a disaster or a masterpiece. Admittedly, my money was on the former. I couldn't fathom the Felice Brothers--a band whose charm lies in their ramshackle approach--successfully reaching across genre lines and introducing a bevy of studio-centric elements to the mix. A bit of concern evaporated when I heard the knock-out lead single "Ponzi", but I certainly noticed the punched-up bass-line and dancerock aesthetic. Were the Felice Brothers playing with fire here?
If they were, opening track "Fire In The Pageant" is suitably titled. The track doesn't throw down the gauntlet, however. Instead, it's a deftly arranged creeper, a bona fide opening track that's both mood-setting and relentless. Eerie percussion textures play off a spidery guitar line that, laid over a bed of keys and schoolyard chatter, form a rising-tension intro, an establishing run that gives way to the first verse. The verses spill into a siren-backed chorus of rowdy schoolchildren and James Felice trading lines with lead brother Ian. A few "new-era" moments burble up throughout--a brief drum machine interlude here, a record scratch there. But the takeaway from "Fire In the Pageant" is the impressive arrangement, especially the vocal weaves throughout the chorus. With this opening track, the Felice Brothers made a statement: love this album or hate it, this is our best shot.
"Container Ship" is slow-moving and shadowy, not unlike the titular vehicle. It has the makings of a classic piano-based Felice Brothers tune, but we hear more of the adornments that the prophecies foretold: gauzy synths, chunky drum samples, twinkling keys. But never to they seem alien to the song, and such is the true triumph of this album.
As if to toy with their fans' established sensibilities, the band starts the Christmas Clapton-led "Honda Civic" as a drunken waltz, before escalating into horn-laden chase music, its sudden tempo jumps like a cop show cutting between scenes. It's another track that thrives on its arrangement, and while it isn't overly reliant on digital elements, yes those are autotuned vocals on the chorus, and yes, they totally work.
After the piano ballad "Oliver Stone"--set amidst garden of electronic swirls--we hear a radio-snippet of some Ian Felice number, overtaken by a film-noir soundbyte that serves as a portentous lead-in to the hypertopical "Ponzi". As mentioned earlier, it's a top-notch effort, a benchmark of the band's musical maturation. James Felice, the unsung hero of the album who scales back his vocal contributions in favor of his general musicianship, provides an infectious piano run around which Ian Felice spins his sinister tale of high-brow corruption. Never has the band sounded so tight, like a singular unit all working towards the same end. Much of this is owed to the notable uptick in the quality of the band's drumwork. Never a priority or necessity on past albums, they saw the need for a refined drummer who could provide denser beats, resulting in more expressive songs across the board.
The album's wild card? "Back In the Dancehalls", which is about as close as a track can get to straight hip-hop without any actual rapping. Making a none-to-subtle reference to the Geto Boys "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" (both lyrically and musically), it might be the last straw for purists. However, I see it as light-hearted relief, a come-down from the pounding coda of "Ponzi", and a legitimate reflection of the influence nineties hip-hop had on the band as individuals.
"Dallas" is one of two legitimate Felice Brothers throwbacks, a sad-cowboy ballad with only the subtlest of accompaniment. "Cuss Catskill Gym" is next, a two-part grinder that finds the band examining politics of boxing in the late 80s. But it's the raucous second half that catches your attention. Ian Felice sings with an energized passion we've rarely if ever heard, to date. In my review for Yonder Is the Clock back in 2009, I praised the Felice Brothers for distancing themselves from the "Dylanesque" label. While it's still bandied about, we're seeing it less and less, and it may be the function of Ian Felice coming into his own as a singer.
"Refrain" is the only song where the synths seem like someone got hold of a MIDI controller and laid them down as an afterthought. Furthermore, the drumwork regresses and offers little to the track. I wish they'd spent a bit more time on this one in particular--but all that said, I'd sooner keep the song than strike it from the record. Penultimate track "Best I Ever Had" is the other wheelhouse Felice Brothers tune, featuring Ian on an open-tuned acoustic and crooning out a midnight ballad that sounds like a Yonder-era relic.
It's the album's closing track that mints Celebration as the band's best record to date. "River Jordan" begins with a few cavernous drum measures before simple guitar strums start the gears moving on this stunning finale. What begins as a slow-burning track turns a corner after a stirring instrumental section. We hear Ian lyrically scoff at success--"Fuck the news, fuck the House of Blues, fuck my whole career, you don't want me here." Perhaps a message to the media? Those not on board with the band's new direction? Whatever the case may be, the song's remaining minutes are as powerful as anything I've heard in a long time. Drums rumble beneath a steady march of noise, as Ian's vocals gather more volatility with each passing second. Finally, Ian unleashes the most hair-raising of notes--you'll know it when you hear it--and at the end of the verse, the music slows and submits to the same drum measures that began the song, now serving as the album's dying breaths.
The resounding message of Celebration, Florida is that the Felice Brothers aren't interested in pandering. Keep the straw hats and overalls--this is the record they wanted to make. It will isolate some, confuse others. No band that takes risks will please everyone--ask Radiohead. But ultimately, a brilliant album will win every time.
Pros: A huge risk yields a huge reward; the Felice Brothers had a vision, saw it through, and the result is near perfection.
Cons: "Refrain" could have benefited from a more restrained mix.