Best of 2011: Sean Clancy on the Felice Brothers’ Celebration, Florida

December 27, 2011

By Sean Clancy

I have a nephew who reported back after witnessing a sodden Felice Brothers show in Oxford, Mississippi, in late 2010 (or maybe early 2011) that the band may have lost it. The new songs were, like, rap or something, he said, and the band members had maybe crossed over into miserable, sloppy-drunk mode on-stage.

So it was with some trepidation that I got hold of an advance copy of Celebration, Florida, the Brothers’ latest and their Fat Possum debut back in May.

It turned out to be the album I listened to the most this year, and it is one of my favorites of any recent year. I mean, I listened to this thing front to back, beginning to end, constantly. I’d feel guilty if I skipped even one song (though I rarely skipped any of its 11 tracks). I became that pest you avoid because he’s always pushing a band on you that you, since you haven’t discovered it yourself, really have no interest in.

And I fully expected that Celebration, Florida would break the Felices to a somewhat larger audience. The band was stepping away a bit from its rural, rootsy shuffling that inspired nine billion Dylan/Band comparisons, and had expanded their sonic palette with an 808 drum machine, samples and sounds they conjured from the halls and classrooms of the abandoned school in upstate New York where the album was recorded.

Produced by Jeremy Backofen, it’s an odd, sometimes unsettling trip down American alleys and backroads. Tracks rise and fall and take weird turns and sometimes seem on the verge of collapse. There are songs about a zombie (“Fire at the Pageant,” which includes a gleeful chorus of children); a lonely late-night TV show host (“Dallas”); Mike Tyson (“Cus’ Catskill Gym,” which features the admonition, “… stay away from Don King” and is the band’s second best boxing song after “The Ballad of Lou the Welterweight” on Tonight at the Arizona); a shoot-out at a Wonder Bread warehouse (“Honda Civic”); Oliver Stone (“Oliver Stone”); and the sleepy beauty of “Back in the Dancehalls.”

This last one, sung-spoken by bassist Christmas Clapton in his woozy croak, is probably my favorite song of the year, if you must know. I’m sucked in by its mystery and it slays me slightly every time it comes bumping into my earbuds.
It’s a loose arrangement of programmed beats, a screechy violin, synthesizer, squiggly electronica and a trumpet that comes in at the end like a sneaky ghost. The lyrics seem to be disjointed stream-of-conciousness and perhaps reflect an end to something, though, honestly, I have no idea what they mean. Robitussin and a line of Ketamine are mentioned, as is Diet Sprite and smooth jazz. The narrator claims that the “only reason I was born/was to die young, blowing a horn,” which, with the jazz reference, brings Chet Baker to mind, though ol’ Chet didn’t have enough sense to die young.
Richard Pryor is evoked and is used to rhyme with “girls in strange attire,” which is a line from Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to Slow Learner, his collection of short stories (It’s likely not a coincidence. The Felices are apparently a bookish bunch of rogues, keeping battered copies of Delilo, Pynchon and others in the ragged, clapped-out old RV that is their home on the road.)

On past albums, the Felice Brothers have mined the ennui of a poor, worn-out America. Many of their songs are populated by characters that could have come from the novels of William Kennedy, their fellow upstate New York resident. “Hey, Hey Revolver” from Tonight at the Arizona is a crushingly sad song that finds a broken single father contemplating sticking a pistol down his throat and pulling the trigger. From the same album, “Rockefeller Drug Law Blues” deals with poverty, desperation and heroin.

And then there are the thoughtful character sketches like “It’s A Wonderful Life” from “Felice Brothers” and the barroom stompers like the irrepressible “Frankie’s Gun” (also from “Felice Brothers”) and “Chicken Wire” from “Yonder is the Clock.”

Back to “Celebration, Florida,” the folksy side of the band certainly isn’t lost amidst the bleeps and beats. “Best I Ever Had” is an acoustic meditation accompanied by only what sounds like a chorus of crickets in the background.
“Half of all I own is in my fist,” sings Ian Felice in his barely awake voice.

On the closer, “River Jordan,” he comes alive, however, in what may be his strongest vocal performance caught on tape. It’s a slow-building song with bloody snow, Biblical references, a desire for release and what sounds like Ian Felice’s growing disdain (“Fuck the news/fuck The House of Blues/fuck my whole career,” he spits). The song swells like a storm and he is in the middle, howling like someone torn apart by a broken heart and homesickness.

It’s a chilling end to a sprawling record that I figured would find the band a wider audience. I thought it would be sorta like Wilco’s “Being There,” a slightly challenging (at least when compared to the group’s previous work) but ultimately listenable record that marked a shift in the band’s sound and took it down a new road along with a bunch of new fans and supporters.

I’m not sure that has happened. The reviews seemed mixed. Spin liked it, was nonplussed. I’ve yet to see it on any Best of 2011 lists other than my own and even my nephew, owner of just about every Felice Brothers CD, hasn’t recovered from that wreck of a show he saw in Oxford.

Fine. Maybe it will grow over time, or maybe it will be relegated as that weird little noisy record in the Felice Brothers’ oeuvre, kinda like R.E.M.’s Monster. Either way, it made my 2011 imminently more tolerable.

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