Smile Politely

Album Review: The Felice Brothers, S/t

There are fundamental questions to ask before opening a discussion of The Felice Brothers, namely regarding what many consider to be “throwback” music: when an artist creates music that strongly hearkens to music of the past, notably of the sort that returns to a form of the basics, it should be assumed — at least for the review that follows — that we can declare a sort of unique brilliance. But to what extent do shoot-em-up romps, trips to the circus, and murder ballads apply to our contemporary lives? And further, to call a band (or record) brilliant, do the songs have to apply?

This, of course, is where metaphor becomes one of our greatest friends.

The Felice Brothers play a brand of what can only be described as folk music, and as such inherently is bred in a sort of tradition. The band strongly recalls Dylan’s foray with The Band (notably the infamous Basement Tapes) and, at times, the carnival-esque atmosphere of choice Tom Waits compositions and the wry humor (and dry drawl) of John Prine’s early records. But as with most old sounding records, this self-titled gem boasts an airiness whose climate could only be modern.

Some might call it derivative, but those who find that aspect overwhelming aren’t listening close enough: these are songs of love and hate and death and life, of abuse and hard times, and most notably of the abounding love of a life that’s not idealized, but rather is difficult and hard to swallow as many of the pills that wreak havoc on these songs. In short, these songs are full of life. Real life.

Pistols-packers, cabaret dancers, drug addicts, dealers: the people who populate these songs come to represent the difficulties of the lives we live as exemplified in hyperbole. Like a series of great poems, some songs beg to be read literally, others figuratively. The throwback aspect of these songs simply accentuates the unbridled nature: they simply couldn’t be performed any other way, and that necessity is crucial.

Point in case, on “Frankie’s Gun!” — perhaps the most complex and reliable song of the entire Felice Brothers catalog — Ian Felice throws a freewheeling series of lyrics about a drug run gone awry, but the song itself is about the care left behind: money for the speaker’s sister to go to the movies, money for his daughter’s clothes, and a “little rock in a box in the cellar” for his mother, in a way completing the story the way only a brief iteration of the past has the ability to do. It’s about the hope for prosperity, the hope for change. And yet still, it’s a song about a drug run. Similar complexities exist in nearly every song on this record.

The only warranted complaint is that the record, though it clocks in at only an hour’s length, feels a bit too long: The Felice Brothers could get away with the same feat in a briefer form, perhaps ten songs instead of fifteen, but we can chalk this up to a rookie mistake. By the time you give yourself over to The Felice Brothers — and you can hardly help it — the throwback aspect of the record doesn’t even matter. It simply all feels fresh, the way that artists can continue to make folk records without sounding redundant (this does not apply to all folk records, of course), and more generally the way that music can still be made in honor of musical tradition, the way we’ve come to herald folk music in the first place.

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