Felice Brothers: Life In The Turning Light

By: Dennis Cook

The Felice Brothers
When most new artists are compared to The Band it's because something in their sound brings to mind "The Weight" or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," but in the case of The Felice Brothers there's a cellular similarity. This Upstate New York band – comprised of siblings Ian (vocals, guitar, piano), Simone (drums, vocals) and James Felice (organ, accordion, piano, vocals), their friend Christmas (bass) and sometimes Farley (washboard, fiddle) – possess The Band's knack for making listeners snuggle up close, planting us right there in the spare rooms where this music came to life. Like The Band, they value the spaces between notes, understanding that what isn't said can impact things as much as what is. In every aspect – killer arrangements, measured but passionate delivery, unpredictable composition, production savvy, lyrical acumen – their songs shine. Their self-titled U.S. debut (released this past March on Team Love Records) shows the same delirious handle on the Great American Songbook that Robertson, Hudson, Helm, Danko and Manuel showed on their first two albums – a profound understanding of the superstring connections between ragtime and honky-tonk, hot jazz and coffeehouse folk, acoustic blues and rock 'n' roll. It's not so much that The Felice Brothers sound like The Band as much as embody and – more importantly – carry on the spirit they stirred up in late '60s Woodstock.

Dance the cold night away to a Johnny Cash tape/ Dance your way into heaven's gate/ Tip your own true love in the rain/ Leave her there where the saxophones play/ Boy you're young as can be, you got country to see/ You're a long ways from heaven's gate.

James Felice by Rod Snyder
Dirtbags, carneys and other shadow denizens walk past us, the air humid with their heartbroken mischief making. These are the inhabitants of The Felice Brothers, weather beaten angels with smudged faces, a boss to stomach and enough problems to keep them grounded from now till doomsday.

"We're definitely interested in that whole world. We weren't carneys growing up but we grew up outside of society, in a way, poor and screwing around in the woods and committing small acts of vandalism and misdemeanors – a few felonies but nothing serious," says James Felice. "So, to an extent, we idolize characters like that because that's what all the greatest books we've read – Faulkner and Hemingway and [Cormac] McCarthy – write about – the real, true Americans and the real, true people of the world. No one wants to hear a fucking song about the king and the queen anymore."

Trouble is foreshadowed throughout this Stateside debut, which follows 2007's import only Tonight at the Arizona and tour-only cash generator Adventures of The Felice Brothers Vol. 1 (which was reportedly recorded on two-track tape in a chicken coop). It's not hard to imagine all hell breaking loose in their tales, if only for all the guns their characters are packing.

"We do have a thing for guns [laughs]. We own guns and we shoot guns 'cause a gun is America, you know? Nothing really represents America like a gun. It's a dangerous, seductive instrument," observes James. "When you go overseas, particularly in England where no one has any guns, they're always shocked at the gun references. I say, 'Well, I'm shocked your police don't have guns!' We hear guns going off all the time; we live a quarter mile from a gun range, and we have the pleasant pitter-patter of rifle fire."

The Felice Brothers
The hardware immediately situates one in a world where mostly unnamed troubles wait around every corner, the risk of catching hot lead omnipresent. But, instead of being paralyzed with fear, the comfort of a heater tucked into one's waistband helps the good times roll, the swingers confident that if the fur flies they won't be the kitties with bald spots afterwards. The Felices' characters are kin to Steely Dan's bagmen and ne'er-do-wells, the children of Babs and Clean Willy set loose in the new Wild West of the Felices' imagination. It's the real world with an itchy trigger finger, and after a few belts you better believe they'll draw lead just to see you dance.

"That's sort of what America's like. It's vaguely fucked up wherever you live. You can get a gun SO easily, and there's psychopaths out there that can get 'em and got 'em. And that's what it's all about in some ways," says James. "It's hard to catch that in Steely Dan, that they're singing about guns and not yachts [laughs]. There's definitely a sinister undertone to some of their songs."

We live in a pretty pejorative age, and fans of getting pleasantly loaded don't have many new anthems. The Felice Brothers help out with ditties about Oxycontin, whiskey and reefer. They tap into the Dionysian splendor of being out of one's right mind, the kind of bent where you tear at your clothes and get loud and free. That is until the next morning, when ball-peen hammers start working the back of your eyes and your mouth tastes like wilted bok choy and ass. As Jerri Blank would say, "Good times, good times."

A bottle of scotch/ A dime sack and a diamond watch/ Wouldn't you like that?/ A bottle of gin/ A typewriter and a violin/ Wouldn't you like that?

"That makes so many people happy. I don't do drugs but I drink and I know how happy a bottle of scotch can make me. Self-medication, my friend, is a necessity," James says. "Some people do take it too seriously. They're just too serious about their drugs. It's recreational, and there's nothing really more to it than that. It's just something people like to do. And be joyful when you do it, because if you aren't then it probably means you don't got it and you'll hurt somebody to get it. You gotta explore a little bit; you only live so long."

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