Felice Brothers – From Dreams To Dust: Album Review

Country contrarians from the Catskills, the Felice Brothers, keep ’em coming, still like nothing or nobody else out there. Like that’s a good thing, and, unmistakably, it is.

Release Date: 17th September 2021

Label: Yep Roc

Format: CD / digital / LP

This is their eighth release, and possibly their most coherent if still making any description of their idiosyncratic style no easier. If, anything, this is such a further concentrated reduction of their off-kilter take on a skew folk and country blues as to be the nearest yet to pure Felice. Offering this as their latest recipe, their musical alchemy remains being to change everything into moonshine, whether the starting materials were the finest single malt or a dustbowl diner milkshake. At its simplest, they still sound as if various members of the Band and the Holy Modal Rounders had come together, with the shared opinion that the Rolling Stones’ ‘Faraway Eyes’ was the Holy Grail of musical attainment. Which, I can accept, may sound off-putting, if simultaneously demanding at least a listen. Please do. And be hooked, by this, the latest dozen songs, predominantly from the pen of Ian Felice.

Opening track actually does break into newer territory, the splendidly entitled ‘Jazz on the Autobahn’, which, over a pulsing bass and thumping drums, Ian Felice narrates a typically bizarre tale of a couple, Helen and the Sheriff, leaving their past behind them in a “doomed corvette”. Is this what you’d call hillbilly-hop? The backing awooawoowoo vocals, the semi-spoken and partly crooned story unfolds, piano joining in ahead of some gloriously scronky trumpet, from NathanielWalcott, finally entering the fray. “And this is what the apocalypse would sound like“, states the lyric. Quite possibly so, and if you manage to get this song out your ear for the rest of the day, well, you’re a better man than me.

To-Do List picks up the sense of a world in melt-down and is a bucket list for the end of days. With rolling choogle to it, it is the most Basement Tape-like of the songs here, Ian at his most Dylanesque, the lyrics/list increasingly bizarre. James Felice shows his intuitively adept piano style perfectly here, making the economy of style sound easy, which it isn’t, and newcomer, Jesske Hume, the first Felice “sister”, second song running shows what a solid move it was to enrol her in on bass. More of that piano, this time sombre, then beckons in All The Way Down, a song by James, the sympathetic drums courtesy the other new member, Will Lawrence, that mood continuing into Money Talks. I confess I wasn’t ready for the treated vocal start to this song at first, finding it intrusive and artificial, until a further listen or two had me waiting for it in anticipation, like a soundtrack to a bad dream you, counter-intuitively, want to revisit. That it then breaks into a brisk canter, the drums to the fore, with a cascade of vocal ululations capering around the lead melody, turns it to perfection. A cracker.

Should you then want something gentler, Be At Rest then provides exactly that, until you listen to the words, and appreciate the funereal tones as being just that, an eulogy of sorts, a beautiful litany to a woebegone acquaintance of the road: “to his son he leaves a cloudless sly, (and) a pair of ill-fitting shoes, to his wife he leaves a box of undeveloped negatives and a bowl of onion soup. From dreams to dust“. That Ian Felice is also a published poet should come as little surprise.

With Valium we are again in, as the title suggests, perhaps the territory of a bedraggled loser, stuck in a midwest motel, “My happiness is touch and go“, the relentlessness of the unfolding narrative gilded by some glorious pedal steel, from guest, Mike Mogis, doing what steel does best. That great wide-open feel remains with the campfire guitar picking of Inferno, which references the Rio Grande with Jean-Claude Van Damme, the land of the falling rain with Kurt Cobain. This album is rolling.

Silverfish, the second by James, offers up an almost gospel feel, a prayer of hope in desperation, shrouded in further mournful steel and choral backing vocals. Building, bar by bar, you feel he will do what he gotta do, if only just in time. Celebrity X begins as another brooding soliloquy, if only for a moment, with a then lurch into a sly swaggering poke at celebrity culture, a Big Pink dual piano and organ backing providing all the backdrop required.

We are back on the prairie for the elegiac Land Of Yesterdays, with what sounds like a musical saw singing briefly, in the dustbowl, possibly steel guitar, the feeling that the album is slowing for a close. With a stop-start rhythm, there are echoes here even of the Neil Young/Buffalo Springfield Expecting To Fly’ as James Felice’s piano decorates the vocals. Built To Blow, the 3rd song by the keyboards man, is a slow 12 bar country blues, with yet more evocative steel. Here I’m reminded, again, of Dylan, this time in his Time Out Of Mind persona, the song a paean, in part, to the band’s tendency to record in unlikely places, citing how even Ian had learned to sing in a chicken coop. (This set, by the way, was recorded in a tiny, converted one-room church.)

Closer, We Shall Live Again, offers further hope from within the carnage of everyday life, mixing emotive images with typically awry conceptual musings: “From Francis of Assisi to the fans of AC/DC” being one such. James picks up an accordion, that the entirely appropriate setting, allied to a slow military drumbeat and the primary school assembly piano, for the semi-spoken drawl of his brothers’ laconic description of a small-town book of Revelations. I find it a totally convincing message, as is the whole record. Roll on their UK tour next year.

Here’s the opening track:

The Felice Brothers UK tour dates 2022 can be viewed here.

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