Yea, though I walk through the strip mall
Simone Felice’s debut album contained 10 story-songs that focused on questionable characters; murderers, arsonists, child abusers, Charlie Manson and his disciples, Courtney Love, etc. He sang his self-penned literate tropes about such folk in a smooth and subdued voice and a slow to mid-tempo rhythm. The effect was powerful, like good poetry—which is not a surprise as Felice is a published poet—but also suffered from sameness. The disc’s brevity worked to its advantage. Individually, each track had substantial merit but taken as a whole the album was depressing and a little monotonous.
On his second solo disc, Felice changes his voice’s pitch and volume as well as creates a more varied palette of material. He sings about places and events, in addition to people—and good things as well as evil ones. Previously it seemed as if Felice mistook a lack of morality for Culture with a capital “C.” Now he posits that life can be rewarding. The result may be less poetic, but much more musical. The instrumentation may be sparse, often the songs are predominately him singing and playing the piano or guitar, but the music is more than just a soundtrack to the story.
That doesn’t stop Felice from ranting about the wickedness of war and the modern condition. He knows there are demons, but he just believes in something more. Take the beginning of the spiritual “Running Through My Head”. “Yea, though I walk through the strip mall / in chains of iron / thrown to the lions / haunted by sirens.” In four short phrases he alludes to the strip mall being the valley of death with his invocation of Psalm 23, being bound in fetters, Judeo-Christian references to Daniel in the lions’ den and gentiles eaten in front of the Romans, and the noise polluting sound of contemporary alarms on police cars, ambulances and fire trucks not to mention the mythological dangerous yet beautiful creatures, who lured nearby sailors to their death with their songs. Felice’s gift for language and his rich use of wordplay is clear. He sings it to a simple drum beat to suggest how quintessentially human the line is. We exist. We suffer. But we are alone together. And maybe there is more to life than waiting around to die.
Felice celebrates freedom, the birth of a child, and being on the road on other songs. “I can be anything you ever need”, he proclaims on “Molly-O, and his Springsteen-like joy is accompanied by a big band with horns, piano, drums, guitar, bass, background singers and more. It’s rock and roll! Mostly, the music resembles the Americana country of such artists as the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers (not to mention his band of brothers, the Felice Brothers), with whom he has played and recorded.
While Strangers is still not a party record, some of the songs like “Molly-O” and “Bastille Day” would be fine appearing on a celebratory mix tape. The more somber tracks, such as “The Gallows” and “Our Lady of the Gun”, feature conflicts of conscious more than simple litanies about death. While this album contains only 10 songs, as did his debut disc, this time it gives the impression of being longer because each cut is more varied and performed differently from the one before.