America is falling apart. Let’s party! This is serious; liberty is threatened by corporate greed. Take off your clothes. No, really…the country’s genocidal history, its political divisions, the possibility of nuclear destruction. Shake it, baby! How is a person supposed to stay sane and live a decent life during such times? The Felice Brothers have an answer. As the title of their most recent instructs us, Undress.
Now Bob Dylan once reminded us that even the President of the United States must stand naked, but the Felice Brothers take it a step further and want to see Donald Trump and Michael Pence French kiss. They may just be being silly. The jaunty horns blaring and banging percussion underneath the song “Undress” suggest the absurdity of modern life—not just the current political situation but the country’s whole homicidal avaricious history embedded in the present day. It’s a mad, mad world indeed. But on this track and others, the Felice Brothers also point out that this moment is the only one in which they and their listeners exist. One also has to enjoy the positive aspects of life; love, other people, the natural world, etc. To do otherwise would deprive a person of the good things that coexist with the bad.
Undress is the folk-rockers’ first new album in three years, and the two blood brothers in the band (Ian and James) are joined by two new members (drummer Will Lawrence, bassist Jesske Hume) after some players from the original act left to explore other pursuits. While only the brothers know the exact situation, interviews with them suggest things weren’t going so well, and the music suffered and dragged as a result. That has changed, as evidenced by the new album. The mood is “fun” even when the songs address serious topics, which they frequently do.
The Felice Brothers take the bromide “the personal is the political” and stand it on is head and have it stick out its tongue so that the political becomes personal. They sing of putting more berries on Blueberry Hill and Charlie Parker on the ten dollar bill on “Special Announcement”; “The Kid” who kills as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder as embodying the collective guilt of the town and country, that the “Holy Weight Champ” is a sinner that even the “Salvation Army Girl” couldn’t redeem, and how the “Days of the Years” breeze by.
The literary quality of Ian Felice’s lyrics calls attention to themselves in the way a good story can draw one in and make one forget others in the room. However, the musical elements do more than decorate the words. The songs would be formidable even without them. Depending on the track, the musical accompaniment can be simple strumming one minute and a big band full of disparate instruments playing in complex polyrhythms the next. The overall effect suggests we are all in it together, but separately. We are more like a herd of stray cats than a band of dogs.
Ain’t that America, as John Mellencamp used to sing—and like him, the Felice Brothers deliver it with a smirk but not with irony. The songs reveal the serious problems that exist and the role we all play in it. The last cut invokes “Socrates” with 24 hours left to live. At least one gets a last meal before the final drink. The Socrates of the song and its first-person narrator toasts to the health of the corrupt society; there is nothing else left but everything and everybody else. Salud!