Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: The Felice Brothers - Yonder is the Clock (* * * *)

Though I grew up in a home with a father who loves classic rock, The Band wasn't ever on regular rotation. So, unfortunately...or perhaps fortunately, I can't comment on the ubiquitous comparisons to New York folk group The Felice Brothers with any real authority. It is quite obvious, however, that the upcoming band's (notice the small 'b') new record - like their last one - has a classic folk-rock feel that can be related to any number of greats from Dylan to Neil Young, yet remains distinctive and fresh enough to be much more than simply a tribute to the genre. Yonder is the Clock borrows its title from a posthumously published Mark Twain publication of a decidedly un-jovial nature and conjures visions an angry and troubled America, though there's certainly some fun to be had throughout the thirteen tracks as well.

The three Felice brothers and two friends sound years removed from the anything modern, musically or otherwise, which - of course , is the point. Primary singer Ian Felice's cracked and world-weary voice rambles over acoustic guitars, accordion, and fiddle with a kind of raw emotion that gives life to his narratives. Much of the music fits into the down-tempo folk category, like the breezy opener, "Big Surprise," in which Ian's Dylan-esque vocals work their way under your skin subtly and carefully over hushed percussion, guitar, and piano. Similarly constructed are the drowsy, piano-led, "Buried in Ice," the heartfelt and heartbreaking waltz "Katie Dear" and a beautifully written folk anthem "Cooperstown." Though there may be too many melancholy ballads packed into the record for some, the writing and musicianship are so consistently great it's difficult to complain about the generally slow pace of things.

Also, Yonder is the Clock isn't without some upbeat rock 'n' roll moments. Here, the band let loose and lighten up, and the results are especially impressive; like the fantastic "Penn Station," which mixes religious imagery with stomping percussion, jangly guitars, and accordion, or the raw, messy "Chicken Wire." My personal favorite is the rollicking "Run Chicken Run," a burning Southern rock tune that wakes the second half of the record from it's sleepy tempo with Ian growling lines over blazing fiddle and guitar, proving that these five have plenty of energy and the talent to channel it into something genuinely exciting.

What ultimately makes Yonder is the Clock such a success is the way it feels so timely and relevant despite such a familiar and well-traveled method of delivery. The Felice Brothers may sometimes sound obsessed with the past, but their writing hits home with the state of America in 2009 the way their predecessors' music did with the American they knew forty years ago. This is the kind of record that probably won't affect such a great number of people due to it's withdrawn nature and lack of mainstream publicity, but that doesn't make its messages any less representative of the time in which we live. The Felice Brothers have very quietly made one of the better folk records released this year so far.