Album Review

The Felice Brothers "Celebration, Florida"

Eamon Murphy
There’s something somewhat charming about a group of guys who can neither sing brilliantly nor play their instruments particularly competently, but haven’t allowed that to get in the way of making some of the best alternative music of the last few years.

I remember first stumbling across them. “Dirtbags capturing lightning and spinning it into harvest gold. That’s what you’re holding in your hands right here”, Gabe Soria’s review read.

And wasn’t that just it. It wasn’t important that the playing wasn’t perfect. What mattered was the feeling that ran through you when the strangled drawl of the accordion lit up, the bass drum kicked in, and Greg’s bow strained majestically across the strings of his fiddle. The Felice Brothers were one of the best things around, and if you haven’t looked to find out why yet, it’s too your own detriment.

Their music feels…. authentic. The songs feel real, like the characters they’re singing about are not only genuine, but deserving and needing of our empathy and attention. And best of all, they subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that no one in the venue should be enjoying themselves as much as the band. Combining raucousness with tender piano-based arrangements; country with gospel; heavy blues, Appalachian style harmonies, and maybe half a dozen other styles, this band truly created their own sound on albums like Yonder is the Clock.

Celebration Florida is another in the vein of unique musical mishmash, but with a little something new. The band has taken the road not yet travelled, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it all. Have the Felices gone a little bit electro on us? There’s a wall of sound on some of the tracks that is conspicuously absent on anything they’ve served to us before.

‘Back in the Dancehall’ is certainly like nothing they’ve done until now. I never thought I’d hear a synthesiser on a Felice Brothers album, and while the combination of synths and strings is passable, it’s not what I came to the party for. ‘Refrain’ opens almost like an Ian Brown song, and only Ian Felice’s vocals stopped me from removing the cd to check for some irregularity.

It’s an album not at all devoid of charm, but not rolling in warmth either. The opening number ‘Fire at the Pageant’ brings the raucousness for sure, but there’s no foot-stomping rocker whose lyrics and melody fill you with the utter joyousness of, as an example, ‘Frankie’s Gun’. ‘Cus’s Catskill Gym’ is another rough yet moving homage to boxing, but in evoking sentiment, it doesn’t come close to ‘The Ballad of Lou the Welterweight’

‘Honda Civic’ is a little more old-school Felice, an almost mournful intro giving way suddenly to an upbeat rocker, replete with a delightfully employed horn section. It’s reminiscent of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, how the band manage to tackle a dark subject in such cheerful tones.

But overall, Celebration Florida doesn’t quite rank on a par with predecessors. It’s got feeling, yes. But I’m searching hard for the gentle desperation of ‘Mercy’ from Through These Reins and Gone, or the utter despair of Rockefeller Druglaw Blues, but neither are present. This is no bad album by any stretch, but doesn’t live up to expectations when you shoulder this band (and I’m afraid I just have) with the sobriquet of most joyful thing around right now.

Fans will probably find enough here to please, but if you and the Felices are yet to be acquainted, you could do better as far as introductions go.