Roots rock. It’s a genre in which creation is so helplessly intertwined with imitation by definition. And so a band like the Felice Brothers, as steeped in revivalism as anyone this side of the Hold Steady, becomes tragically hard to appreciate on its own merits.
Three brothers and two friends from upstate New York, their 2008 Team Love debut transcended these limitations by way of sheer genuineness and warmth — and, of course, their powerful, self-assured songwriting. True, Ian Felice could likely trump Robert Zimmerman in a Bob Dylan soundalike contest (brother and bandmate James brushes the fact aside: “If your band uses guitars, you can be compared to Bob”), but so what? I found myself wondering. Here, I wanted to shout, finally, is a band that can cop a Mark Twain reference for its album title — hell, use a word like “yonder” in any context — without the slightest trace of irony; a band that can throw down lyrical nuggets like “awkward as a calf with its legs a’wobbling” and keep a straight face. (And that they do.)
Is it because they once lived and wrote music in a 1987 special education bus? Because they recorded this record in a converted chicken-coop-turned-studio? No. Silly stabs at mythology aside, it’s because these guys not only sound like classic Americana, but feel like it, too — and apparently they live it. And yet, despite flashes of inspired songwriting, Yonder Is the Clock is marred wildly by a gnawing déjà vu, a sense that the Brothers have done all this before, and perhaps better.
“The Big Surprise” makes clear this concern, opening the album with a haunting, expanding brooder, just as “Little Ann” opened the last album. It’s a blur of guitars and pianos and tom toms building towards a striking violin burst; you wonder why they would open the album with something so utterly tired sounding, but it works. And yet the title rings with irony: there is no “big surprise,” but only a concession, an admission in the song that a recycling of The Felice Brothers has begun.
Then comes a rather simple back-and-forth volley between brooding ballads and ramshackle rockers; and though they could have been dashed off in ten minutes, it’s hard not to prefer the latter entries for their tunefulness and urgency. Try “Penn Station”, with its raucously catchy polka rhythm, harmonica breakdown, and tortured vocal growls (all together now: “will I… die-iiieee!? in Penn Station tonight, oh Lord!”); or “Chicken Wire”, filthy blues like a lost Keith-penned Exile on Main Street outtake. “Run Chicken Run” is even better, an infectious and loud burst of violin/accordion counterpart, buoyed by driving drums and bizarrely rendered character sketches (“The barber, he’s all smiles / He’s from the British Isles / But his razor’s sharp as hell and he knows it well … He could make your life a living hell!”).
Nestled in between these comes the ominous strums and accordion wheezes of “Ambulance Man”, and I’m inexplicably reminded of “Sister Morphine”. It’s the album’s eeriest — and, perhaps, most memorable — moment, I’m convinced. “Here comes the rain / Pounding old Coney Island again”, moans Ian Felice like a man twice his age; “here come the shards / Tearing my good neighbors apart” — and then the drums’ dirge-like boom-clap, and a barrage of drone effects both terrifying and organic. “Ambulance man, I’m at the end tonight”, he concludes, and you wish the rest of the album was as convincing.
Side two is helplessly bogged down by ballads, to a degree even more noticeable than on the self-titled disc. Ian hands over the vocal duties to an unidentified bandmate on “All When We Were Young” (as with “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow” previously), yet his replacement’s voice shines with a sort of boyish innocence terribly ill-fitted for music this rusty. (And lines like “Some nights we’d get so hot we’d be like Jesus Christ” don’t help.) Then there is the gloomy piano waltz of “Sailor Song”, as mumbled and muffled as was “Goddamn You, Jim”. Elsewhere, Ian pleads a judge to spare an outlaw friend’s life (“Boy from Lawrence County”) and muses on baseball’s rich history (“Cooperstown”, in which Ty Cobb is said to have a “game like a war machine”), all blending together in the same tedious sea of accordion groans and plodding acoustic guitars.
Lastly, “Rise and Shine” is the closer that shoots for the same purposeful sense of finality that marked “Tip Your Way”. It never quite scores. That is perhaps the best summation of Yonder Is the Clock there is: a record so concerned with repeating the strengths of an album past that it forgets to chart its own path. I hope this record becomes the exception — a seemingly rushed effort from an indisputably talented group — rather than the rule.