The Felice Brothers trade nostalgia for broader musical landscape with new album, “Celebration Florida”.
Following a Felice Brothers show last winter, I asked James Felice if the band had thought about doing another tour like “The Big Surprise Tour” again (with Old Crow Medicine Show, Justin Townes Earle and The Dave Rawlings Machine). He respectfully replied, “We are too young to cash in on that stuff” (nostalgia). They soon jettisoned their management and record label and eventually found a home with Fat Possum Records, who have helped advance the careers of such varied artists as RL Burnside and the Black Keys.
On “Celebration, Florida” we find the self proclaimed “dirt bags” from the Catskill Mountains in New York, incorporating electronic and synthesized forms of music into their stories, but these is not Depeche Mode redux as some have feared. The songs on the record remain fundamentally consistent with the sound of their previous work. The results often remind me of grittier versions of the songs David Byrne recorded with Brian Eno.The results are fabulous and this release is their most challenging effort yet. The songs themselves sound at once old and new, as if one was reading this mornings New York Times and The Great Gatsby simultaneously. The album features songs that are very different than some of their previous work, (“Ponzi” “Honda Civic””Oliver Stone”) but also contains a few that would be at home on their last record “Yonder is the Clock” (“Dallas” “The Best I Ever Had” “Fire at the Pageant”).
Ironically, the actual town of Celebration, Florida is themed around “Old Time America” nostalgia and is the country’s only corporately owned municipality. Things seem a little too perfect in Celebration to many, and that is the case with the places and characters on this album, and we learn about them as things are starting to spiral out of control on the first track, “Fire at the Pageant”. Although the band eschews its “down home” charm and anthemic songs of some of their previous work, this track features cacophonous harmonies wonderfully arranged with James Felice demanding “Someone call 911!” along with a group of children, while brother Ian pleads with “Everyone to please stop shouting”. The listener feels the same pressure the characters, trying to absorb all the noise, trying keep a right mind in the chaos.
“Container Ship” finds a character sailing the globe, on the lookout for pirates. He’s trying to get home to the States, and the song tells us as much about the singer as it does the sailor. “Honda Civic” is a much wilder ride, from comfortable accordion intro to the frantically paced paced (Christmas sung) verse featuring horns reminicent of the Innervisions era Stevie Wonder records, and Ian Felice’s delightful chorus;
“He’s got the money to buy the blue car,
He just needs a ride to the dealership.
I can see my fiancee in the passenger side”
Of course all is not as well as it seems and we later find them in a gunfight at a Wonder Bread warehouse and the car is riddled with bullet holes.
“Oliver Stone” featuring Malcolm Cecil on synthesizer/synth horns, is a startling success with the closest thing Ian Felice has done to “crooning” that I have yet heard. We feel the narrators loneliness and totally isolation from the world they once knew. The sound beautifully lush and with Ian Felice’s dusty voice it carries the same kind of unexpected emotional character of the Pogues “Fairytale of New York”. The song comes to its conclusion with a turning of the radio dial finding its way past news reports and old Felice Brothers song that sounds from Iantown era, clips from old films before landing on their new single “Ponzi”. Ponzi is the best single they have released since “Frankie’s Gun!” and its driven by rowdy chanting harmonies, wild percussion sound, and pulsating synthesizer. Like much of the album it seems ripped out of the life story of Florida based swindler Arthur Nedal, who disappeared for a few weeks a couple of years ago, leaving only a note in his office. (much like the character in “Refrain”), leaving behind an unsuspecting and broken hearted wife. In “Back in the Dancehalls” Christmas Felice finds himself back in familiar territory, but finds the people in it disturbing, “the kids nowadays are all too violent”. “Dallas” is a more typically sounding song, about a late night talk show host/comedian returning home from a few shows (with a velvet portrait in tow), finding himself feeling completely isolated. The song reminds me of the statue of Andy Warhol in New York city and i wonder if it triggered some inspiration in this song.
In “Cus’s Catskills Gym” we observe the sharks around Mike Tyson, circa 1986, (Don King, Bill Cayton, Jim Jacobs) looking to cash in on a emotionally vulnerable, but physically lethal young man. Kevin Rooney serves as Cus’s lone voice that is drowned out amongst the money grabbers. It features an “Atlantic City” style double narrative, with the warning “Stay away from Don King”.
In “Refrain” we find a broken man leaving a letter to his wife on the floor of his office telling her he is off the “Great Kaleidoscope”. He says his goodbye with some instructions of how to get by, (exactly what Nedal did). The character in “The Best I Ever Had” seeks comfort from his crumbling world in the memory of the woman he loved, while lamenting “Half of what i own is in my fist”. He is seeking redemption and he finds it in “River Jordan” . Ian pleads with the river to “Wake my pharoah, so he can teach my people to walk the straight narrow”. It may be a death march, possibly mirroring The Felice Brothers career, and it culminates with Ian Felice issuing a mission statement,
“Fuck the news!”
“Fuck The House of Blues!”
“Fuck my whole career!”
“You don’t want me here!”
The song builds frantically to a crescendo before he issues;
“Oh lord I wanna go!
Back to the land I once knew!
Far past these fields of bloody snow!!!
Back to the sand!
Back home again!”
The Felice Brothers songs traditionally have had a feeling of immediate comfort, even at first listen. That is not the case in “Celebration, Florida”. While they have left their comfort zone, performance wise, This album may help propel their songs places “Americana” bands usually don’t tread. Perhaps “Celebration, Florida” can be for this genre, what The Clash’s “Sandinista” was for Punk.