[10 March 2008]
The Felice Brothers are a 4-piece from the Catskill Mountains in New York state, featuring James Felice on keyboards and strings, Ian Felice on lead vocals and guitar, Simone Felice on drums, and their friend Christmas on bass. They play that mixture of folk and country, with slight doses of blues and rock, known as Americana. The Felice Brothers is being called their American debut, although they have a disc out in the UK (Tonight at the Arizona) and actually self-released another album (Through These Reins and Gone) before that. Team Love has picked a handful of songs from that self-released album and the band has recorded another ten new tracks for The Felice Brothers, making for an overlong collection of 15 songs.
The brothers seem to draw a lot of comparisons to Bob Dylan. This probably annoys them while simultaneously flattering them, but I’m gonna do it as well. The folky, upbeat sound of most of their material does superficially resemble early Dylan, but it’s really the voice of lead singer Ian which invites the comparison. His thin, raspy whine makes it sound like he’s intentionally aping young Bob (even if he is not), and frankly I find it annoying. Dylan’s singing voice has never been good, and using it as a source of inspiration for your own vocal style seems like a bad choice. Although, to be fair, Ian Felice is hardly the first person to do this over the past four decades. To make this more aggravating, when a different brother takes the lead vocals on the song “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow”, the voice is clear and strong. Similarly, the singing on “Goddamn You, Jim”, besides being mixed so soft it’s barely audible, is delicate and pure. Apparently the band thinks Ian’s singing style fits better with the majority of their material.
The actual songs on The Felice Brothers are a mixed bag. The band is at its best when doing bouncy tunes with an old-timey feel. “Frankie’s Gun”, with its peculiarly happy-sounding refrain “Bang bang went Frankie’s gun / He shot me down, Lucille!”, is fun, while “Whiskey in My Whiskey” is a good ol’ country drinking song with James on soused-sounding lead vocals. “Love Me Tenderly” works particularly well with Ian’s voice as he takes on the persona of a hard-luck, small-time criminal pining for his lady. “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Take This Bread” are mid-tempo shuffles that are greatly enhanced by the canny addition of Dixieland-style brass.
The ballads don’t fare quite so well, except for the aforementioned pair. “Goddamn You, Jim” has a bed of glacially moving, cold-sounding music framing what sounds like a dark, western tale. “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow” tells a love story about a hobo couple, and the heartfelt vocals make it work. Songs like “Saint Stephen’s End” and “Ruby Mae” are not particularly musically interesting, and have to rely on Ian’s thin singing to try and portray the emotions present in the lyrics. They don’t really succeed.
By the time The Felice Brothers gets through “Tip Your Way” at the end of the album, the band has worn out their welcome. “Whiskey in My Whiskey”, coming at track 12, finishes up around 45 minutes into the album and would’ve been the perfect spot to wrap it up. Instead, we get the spy-themed “Helen Fry” and the poppy “Radio Song”, both of which are pretty good, but my attention span is wandering away by that point, every time. Overall, this is a solid disc which shows potential, but the Felice Brothers aren’t quite there yet.