It’s not often I hear a pop-oriented band of young musician’s tackle politics lyrically and with finesse. With no fear of addressing current events this group drapes it all in a cross between Beatlesque arrangements, Bob Dylan early 60’s political lyrical settings with words not ordinarily pop lyrical.
The creativity on the opening track “Undress,” from the New York-bred Felice Brothers’ newest 12-track collection (also called Undress (Yep Roc) has lots to recommend it. The 2nd track — more to my liking – has darker lyrics that cut through the borderline commerciality and the basics of pop music. This may be pop music on the early onset of the new LP. But lead singer Ian Felice has dipped his daring toes into Tom Waits’ pool.
Pop music is essentially American folk music – it’s folk music simply with too much sugar. “Mary, Mary,” written by Mike Nesmith for The Monkees became a great blues song by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The Monkees’ “Take a Giant Step,” became staples of Cassandra Wilson and Taj Mahal as well. “Holy Weight Champ,” develops with a style akin to Waits and the quirky Georgia-band Swimming Pool Q’s. The approach with sensitive guitar and narration touch the rim of the cup of an RCA Records’ dark remarkable band The Nails (“88 Lines About 44 Women”).
I liked the first track but loved the second. Vocals are engaging and the music is wound tight like an old clock. A beautiful upbeat, disciplined performance skeeter’s along with political overtones stuck in a gyro pocket that drips playful notes and lyrics. “Special Announcement” is shaped similarly to the English progressive rock-folk band Strawbs (“Part of the Union”). Upright piano notes, a rollicking sing-along (reminiscent of Deaf School’s “What a Way to End It All,” & “All Queued Up”). The Felice Brothers provide a similar whipped cream for a flavorful song.
Accordion and piano open “Nail It,” with a shift in gears and their repertoire effectively take a stab at The Band. Musically, harmonically and in its tradition The Felice Brothers, despite not vocally in the same arena as The Band (yet) – do approach their rural, rustic and boundless prestige. This song proves they have a shimmering Americana presence. Good showcase.
As good as they can be with their Beatle-Band-Strawbs purity, professionalism and performance, songs like “Salvation Army Girl,” are more in the tradition of the cabaret, dance hall of The Tubes & Deaf School. Not wholly Americana or rural this is not a drawback. It’s diversity, originality and it’s The Felice’s being themselves. They perform with durability and enthusiasm throughout.
That they’re a NY band capable of this virtuosity is compelling. Starting in the subway and sounding as if they’re from Arkansas is commendable. Music is a state of mind. It’s been said no white man could sing the blues soulfully — but how do you explain Joe Cocker? How do explain the rootsy, woodsy feel of the concrete jungle’s Felice Brothers?
Brothers Ian (lead vocalist, guitar & piano) & James (accordion, organ, piano & vocals), are the architects. Will Lawrence (drums) & Jesske Hume (bass) provide rhythm. Ian’s vocals, while firm in a pop vein possesses a plaintive rootsy vocal and when he applies his pipes in such a way (example: “Hometown Hero”) he is superb. Closer to perhaps to The Band’s late singer Rick Danko than Levon Helm or Richard Manuel.
Appealing? Yes. The brothers apply the right amount of rootsy sensibility and identity. This continues with the radiating melodic “Raccoon,” and it seems the final tracks dip deeper in an Americana form than the earlier songs. “Days of the Years,” is a poignant ballad rendered with warm storytelling. “Socrates,” closes on a high note.
Produced by Jeremy Backofen the LP is available at Apple Music, Bandcamp & eBay.