The Felice Brothers
With ‘Undress,’ their first new album in three years, The Felice Brothers manage to walk that delicate tightrope between timely and timeless, crafting a collection that’s urgently relevant to the modern social and political landscape without ever losing sight of the larger picture. Offering moral clarity and sober reflection through nuanced character studies and artful parables, the band tips their caps to the biting wit of Mark Twain and the keen observation of Woody Guthrie here, presenting a series of portraits that mix the mundane and the fantastical in such a way as to blur the line between reality and metaphor: a man tosses all of his possessions into a smoldering crater; a White House spokeswoman stands naked before the nation; a small town kid turns to crime when his neighbors forsake him. In the world of The Felice Brothers, the traditionally powerful—politicians, preachers, pundits—are comical at best, rendered impotent by their own narcissistic ambition, while those who traffic in kindness and generosity are larger-than-life heroes, cast as everyday saviors walking the streets of a thankless society. In that sense, ‘Undress’ fits neatly into a long tradition of American folk storytelling, embracing what came before it even as it offers its own unique 21st Century twists along the way.
“Folk music has been a part of every era in American history,” says guitarist/singer/songwriter Ian Felice. “When you work within that folk idiom to tell a story about the human condition, you can hopefully end up with something that feels classic and current all at once.”
While ‘Undress’ contains many of the musical hallmarks The Felice Brothers have come to be known for since first emerging from New York’s Hudson Valley more than a decade ago (ragged guitars, weighty lyrics, a Replacements-esque sense that the wheels might come off at any moment), the record marks something of a new chapter for the group after undergoing major personal and professional changes. During the break between albums, Ian became a father and released both his first solo record and his first book of poetry, while new bassist Jesske Hume (Conor Oberst, Jade Bird) joined drummer Will Lawrence in rounding out the rhythm section following the departure of two longtime members.
“Jess and Will make for a truly solid rhythm section, and having that kind of strength really frees up Ian and me onstage every night,” says James Felice, who plays keyboards and accordion in addition to sharing writing and vocal duties with his brother. “There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being completely supported by great musicians.”
Support—musical, emotional, familial—has been at the heart of The Felice Brothers from the very start. Inspired as much by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman as Pete Seeger and Chuck Berry, the band first began performing on subway platforms and sidewalks in New York City in 2006. Within just a few years, they were playing Radio City Music Hall with Bright Eyes and appearing everywhere from the Newport Folk Festival to Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. They’d go on to release a series of critically acclaimed albums that pushed the boundaries of modern folk, with The New York Times likening their music to “the rootsy mysticism of the Band” and The Guardian hailing their songs as “impeccably crafted, with literary-minded lyrics that are both playful and profound.” The band shared bills with Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons among others, took their blistering live show to Coachella, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and countless other festivals across the US and Europe, and backed up Conor Oberst extensively in the studio and on the road.
For a perpetually touring band like The Felice Brothers, the stage is an essential barometer for any new material, so before recording a single note of ‘Undress,’ they packed up their van and took the songs out for a three-week test drive.
“A bunch of revelations happen when you start to play a song live,” explains Ian. “It’s really important way for us to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
By the time they headed into the studio (Kirton Farm Studios) in upstate New York, they’d locked in arrangements and culled their pool of 30 new songs down to a still-ambitious 20. Recording live to tape with producer/engineer Jeremy Backofen (Frightened Rabbit, Ólöf Arnalds), songs were generally captured in three or four takes, with raw, loose performances that emphasized vocal harmonies more than ever before.
“We just played all day every day for about two weeks in the studio,” says James. “We’ve worked with Jeremy in the past, and he’s a great architect and boss for us. He let’s us do what we want, but he pays really close attention to performance and has such a good ear for feel.”
‘Undress’ opens with the sardonic title track, a tightly grooving stream-of-consciousness that strips away the façades of money and power to confront the ugliness underneath. “Republicans and Democrats undress / Even the evangelicals, yeah you lighten up, undress,” Ian sings, juxtaposing “Caesars of wall street” and “trigger happy deputies” with Native American genocide and nuclear winter. Politics weighs heavily on the album, but it’s often tackled from surrealistic perspective that highlights the absurdity of it all. The Jack Spicer-inspired “Socrates” finds a songwriter sentenced to death for questioning a tyrannical government, while the cutting “Special Announcement” sees its narrator “saving up my money to be president.”
Dark as its depiction of the halls of government may be, ‘Undress’ ultimately believes in the inherent goodness of mankind, chalking our failings up not to malice but rather to being victims of a system rigged against us going all the way back to Adam and Eve. Over waltzing pedal steel on “The Kid,” Ian contemplates our own complicity in the wrongdoing of those we turn our backs on, while the banjo-driven “Hometown Hero” finds a petty criminal daydreaming of the parade that awaits his release from prison, and the tender “Poor Blind Birds” depicts humanity as helpless, innocent, fumbling for survival. It’s perhaps the infectious “Salvation Army Girl,” though, that offers the most hope for the future.
“I wanted a song about a female superhero,” explains Ian, “one whose superpower is charity.”
In his stark 1982 masterpiece “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen concluded, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” The Felice Brothers might not disagree, but with ‘Undress,’ they’d like to remind you that there’s a kindness, too.