Flea-Market Music: On the Glorious Cacophony of The Felice Brothers

Their style is loose, but not without form; cluttered, though sometimes spare; common, but not ordinary; discounted, but not cheap; public, but out-of-the-way; historical, but liable to disappear at any moment.

I was listening to The Felice Brothers‘ recent single, “Aerosol Ball”, when it put this image in my head of a kid picking through boxes of old comic books at a flea market — the big, outdoor kind, the real kind: sprawling, chaotic, oppressed by a high sun and woolen heat. His sweaty fingers flip through a never-wrapped, mildewed issue of Weird Science and the pages shed into tea flakes in his palms. Wally Wood’s visions of the future: crumbled, just like that.

A disregard for institutional acclaim or High Art accolades is the dive bar where the termite meets the flea for a drink.

With the release of “Plunder”, there are now two new Felice Brothers singles in advance of the group’s forthcoming album, Life in the Dark. Both songs sound like they were made from a flea market. Not about a flea market, or at a flea market. From a flea market. Of it, born from it, cobbled together or fashioned from pearl-handled baby spoons, Amish clocks, weathered license plates, frayed copies of Life magazine, beat-up ukuleles, cigarette smoke, dried mud, and the lazy cacophony of hagglers, collectors, and weekend comedians. Neither song is dressed as kitsch or irony; they’re not dressed “as” anything. Each is simply the expendable, the boxed-up and unpacked, the well-handled, common, and priced-to-sell stuff of shopworn America that someone thinks ought to be worth something to somebody. And it is.

“Aerosol Ball” begins with a drum thumping urgently, then backs off. An accordion strikes, then stutters. A violin picks up what might or might not be the melody. A lanky man in a grease-stained shirt whines, “The rain in Maine is made of Novocain”, and we know, immediately, the song is in no hurry to get somewhere. Ian Felice relishes the wordplay like Bob Dylan and The Band in 1967, ten miles southeast of The Felice Brothers‘ hometown of Palenville, New York: “Marilyn is made of heroin” and “every tooth is Baby Ruth-proof”. The entire song rambles on, unconcerned with impressing you, unimpressed with itself — the chorus is just the verse dressed up for a Saturday night — and concerned only that it keeps up its own strolling rhythm. Otherwise, the song goes where it finds there is to go.

Like plenty of other great rock ‘n’ roll songs, “Plunder” sounds like a second take just after the band learned the song. It’s full of gaps where the performance seems about to fall apart, holes filled with drums and a guitar solo, and close to the end, an anticlimactic eight-bar crater at the bottom of which an organ chugs along the best it can. “Farewell to gravity, farewell to pageantry”, sings Ian Felice, “farewell to savagery, and to your majesty”. In its own ramshackle way, it’s a majestic song.

The Felice Brothers make flea-market music, a style that’s loose, but not without form; cluttered, though sometimes spare; common, but not ordinary; discounted, but not cheap; public, but out-of-the-way; historical, but liable to disappear at any moment. A cousin to what art and film critic Manny Farber in 1962 described as “termite art”, flea-market music is not limited to certain genres or subgenres. It has everything to do with a certain complex attitude toward American culture, its past, its overlooked spaces. Its custom is a leisurely pace; its only rule is freedom. In songs of the flea market variety we can hear the air of the room where the musicians play, and we can believe that a song has a texture, an aroma, a taste.

Defining precisely when flea-market music began is about as fruitful as trying to pin down when the first flea market took place, though this author has discovered through ten minutes of online research that there’s far more documentation about the flea market’s history than he imagined. Nonetheless, the spirit of flea-market music in America is as old as the young nation’s attempts to distinguish itself from the oppressive influence of European culture and aesthetics. “The first American playwrights could think of nothing less to compose than Shakespearean tragedies in blank verse,” wrote the art critic Harold Rosenberg in his 1959 book The Tradition of the New. “Had it not been for a will to bad art in order to satisfy the appetites of the street, the American theatre would never have come into being.” The same can be said of American popular music.

At roughly the same time in history, both Rosenberg and Farber saw that American visual art was still struggling to shed the European yoke — but popular music had already shed it, chopped it up, and burned it. Flea-market music played its role, though it wasn’t yet flea-market music as such. It was a spirit of abandon in secular old-time folk, found more often in songs like “Drunkard’s Special” by Coley Jones or “Saute Crapaud” by Columbus Fruge than in the isolated mysteries of Buell Kazee’s “Butcher Boy” or Charlie Patton’s “Devil Sent the Rain Blues”.

Woody Guthrie had the spirit, The Weavers did not.

Roy Brown gave it a voice in “Rockin’ at Midnight” in 1949, but not “Good Rockin’ Tonight” two years earlier.

Elvis held it in his throat when he sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Louisiana Hayride; Chuck Berry could barely contain it in his guitar.

You find the flea-market essence most often at the beginning of things, where, as Farber wrote in “White Elephant Art and Termite Art”, “the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” A disregard for institutional acclaim or High Art accolades is the dive bar where the termite meets the flea for a drink.

But flea-market music proper is more of a contemporary phenomenon because it deals with the overwhelming density of cultural knowing. All the songs, the motifs, the chord changes, the rhythms, the lyrical tropes. The legends, rules, shadows: the substance of American popular culture then and now. It’s an old challenge, granted, and maybe an eternal challenge, but the sheer and ever-growing abundance of mass media since World War II has made us uniquely self-conscious about all that has been done before us. So much! Too much! How can a musician make something new despite the knowledge, and the audience’s knowledge, of everything that has come before?

Rosenberg’s answer was “Coonskinism”, the embracing of the unique nature of the American setting, but that was a pointed response to the influence of European art. It’s not quite enough anymore. Farber argued, in a breathtaking conclusion, for a —

bug-like immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, overall, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.

In music at least, this has been corrupted into techno-utopian postmodern pastiche, which is too calculated and efficient to be aimless, and far too glamorous.

What’s needed is a certain amount of crappiness. A sense of the gently worn, the secondhand. Guitars that do not sound dazzling but instead sound like they barely work. Vocals that function as a bargain made between you and the singer. Only then can the thorough immersion of the performance retain the sense of wandering purpose and dispensability. In flea-market music, performance is always an act, an action, an event, and for this reason it always seems truer. The musician buys her tiny parcel, sets up her table, and decides that this moment, for herself, matters more than the product the moment may create. The moment is captured on the recording, in its atmosphere, its senses. This is why on so many Felice Brothers recordings you hear chairs creaking, the depth of the room, voices that sound like they’re singing from a nearby hallway, a hitch in the singer’s throat that in a more refined setting would have been re-recorded.

When this bargain-basement aesthetic takes hold, the massive burden of history is shrugged off. How could it not be? The wealth of the past and its detritus are neither glamorized, honored, ignored, nor selectively ripped off. Instead, history in flea-market music is a sprawling cantankerous ambiguous mess: space more than time, mood more than story, feeling more than knowing, a setting instead of a lesson. Listen to The Felice Brothers amble through “Frankie’s Gun!” and you hear a century’s worth of criminal ambitions, bad decisions, and a that’s-just-the-way-it-goes fatalism that would be depressing if it wasn’t such a good groove.

This swap-meet setting, littered with junk, cannot possibly become precious when the music is performed from within it as opposed to about it, since everything’s for sale, even if only for a buck. Ambivalently and modestly commercial, flea-market music resists the anti-consumerist purism of traditional folk and Great Art alike (which is generally a sham in both cases, anyway), but it absolutely rebels against the corruption of music into a reliable, industrious commodity. It’s the antidote for product-placement music. Only the music and its performance matters, which means it’s not marketed as virtuous by its nature. You get to pick it up, study it, talk about it. With zero interest in selling any extra-musical authenticity, flea-market music has no interest in the glamorized version of individualism. There are no celebrities at the flea market.

The Felice Brothers have always made flea-market music, but their self-titled 2008 album and its follow-up the next year, Yonder Is the Clock, are the purest expression of this offhand, textured, priced-to-sell, of-the-moment, cluttered, glorious art. At the center, usually, is the voice of Ian Felice, who sounds like he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years. Even as he crows like a lounge singer in “Love Me Tenderly” and vocally slaps his way through “Frankie’s Gun!”, and even if his voice is sometimes so offhand that it sounds like, to borrow a phrase from Farber, a “squandering-beaverish endeavor”, Felice somehow convinces you he means every word he says. The casualness makes you lean in, dig around; good flea-market music turns you into a rummager. A throwaway ramble like “Run Chicken Run” takes on an weirdly ominous portent even as it’s buried under the chaos of horns and reeds, a wiry guitar, and booming drums, and while the beginning of “Greatest Show on Earth” sounds like a flea market organized by Tom Waits, it immediately backs off into a rhythm and melody that could be from anywhere, anytime.

It’s the eclecticism and nonchalant risk that makes The Felice Brothers worth listening to, even when their ambition gets the better of them, as on 2011’s Celebration, Florida. The album uses electronic percussion and synths on songs like “Ponzi” and “Back in the Dancehalls” to less than stellar effect. Then there’s that disco beat on “Honda Civic”. But it’s not the materials they use, really, just the shifting back and forth from one style to another that feels desperate. Then, just when it seems like the album’s gotten away from them, they deliver “Dallas” and “Cus’s Catskill Gym” and conclude with “River Jordan”, which I might want to be played at my funeral.

Maybe it sounds strange to say that what I admire most about The Felice Brothers, and flea-market music in general, is the plainness. Maybe that doesn’t sound important enough, or distinctive. But the ordinary quality that becomes extraordinary is the most hidden, the most overlooked power that music can possess. It begins by sounding real, begins with the stink and bartering and mess of real life, and then, through art, it becomes true.

Or maybe it’s just that flea-market music reminds me that music is resilient, tougher than any other form of art. The brittle pages of Weird Science beg for comfort. Music asks for none, but gives it generously. Even when music disappears into history, it will always find its way back if you can rummage around long enough.