[9 June 2011]
The Felice Brothers must be big fans of film director Oliver Stone. Not only is their most ambitious song on their latest album named after Stone, but the upstate New Yorkers frequently employ the moviemaker’s method of combining real people and situations (JFK, The Doors) with certain imaginary elements to create a deeper truth. The Felice Brothers create cinematic songs with plots, characters and settings that could easily be made into screenplays, or seem reminiscent of something you think you have already seen.
That’s certainly true of the best material on Celebration, Florida, named after the manufactured wholesome suburbia run by the Disney company. Songs such as “Fire at the Pageant”, “Ponzi” and “Cus’s Catskill Gym” could easily serve as script concepts. In “Fire at the Pageant”, a child’s father comes back to town after being dead and buried. The group employs 15 elementary school students to sing back up and give the piece an authentic feel. “Ponzi” offers a fictionalized take on the Madoff family, here called the Kings, perhaps to avoid a libel suit. But this seems unnecessary as the Madoffs are public figures. Most likely, this strategy allows the Felice Brothers to invent what was going on in the Madoffs’ heads as the scandal broke on the international stage.
The group takes the opposite track on “Cus’s Catskill Gym” by sticking to the facts of boxer Mike Tyson’s biography as they root him on. The song’s imagery (e.g., “Day-time TV court dates and bankruptcy / circle you through a maze of Pay-per-view”) would easily work as a film montage. In a related way, the band frequently employs sound effects in a collage type manner. For example, the last minute of “Oliver Stone” features the sound of someone going through a radio dial, hitting the different stations for a couple of seconds before moving on and finally settling on a distant broadcast and then blending in to “Ponzi”, which begins with a snippet of Audrey Hepburn’s dialogue from the film Charade. The parallel relationship between music and film conflates at such moments.
Longtime fans of the Felice Brothers bemoan the loss of original member Simone Felice and the band’s change from a mostly acoustic band to an electric one. The criticisms make a certain amount of sense. The Felice Brothers are not what they used to be. The band has grown, and not all of the growing pains are pretty. Some of the tracks on the new album, such as the dirge “Dallas” and the plodding “River Jordan”, could use some of Simone’s energetic drumming.
But the Felice Brothers also have moved in new directions that expose the benefits of taking risks, such as the heist narrative “Honda Civic” and the retro “Back in the Dancehalls”. These cuts offer seductive tales laced with menace that are accompanied by purposely off-kilter rhythms that evoke something going wrong even when it appears everything is going right. The synthesizers mixed with fiddles on the latter track seem more authentic to what goes on in rural towns than any purist approach would. Like it or not, we live in an age permeated by the electronic media.