The Felice Brothers’ new album Undress – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great record Springsteen should have made between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town but didn’t. This one’s a lot more Americana-flavored, when it’s not evoking the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet along with Willie Nile and Phil Ochs. It’s gloomy, surreal, seriously woke stuff, but with towering crescendos that peak out in ecstatic soul and country-flavored choruses. Frontman Ian Felice’s aw-shucks delivery masks ferocious anti-fascist insight: this band gets the big picture. Future generations, if there are any, may judge this a classic. Until Alexa’s in every room and every bar, sifting through your words and your expressions for any hint of nonconformity, you can sing along with these guys. You can also sing along with them at the Bell House, where they’re playing at 9 PM on May 10. General admission is $20.
On the surface, the coyly blithe title track offers a cynical “no matter what frat, we all shit” quasi-cameraderie. “Under the mushroom cloud: The Pentagon, undress!” Ian commands. Later on, the President, Vice President and one of many of the current administration’s Press Secretaries are ordered to do so as well. We’ll get you bastards to be transparent one way or the other!
Built around a wary, austere guitar hook, Holy Weight Champ is a coldly defiant parable, its protagonist throwing various loaded symbols at a nameless creditor. It’s sweet revenge against the banksters…or is it? Special Announcement, with its sardonic ragtime piano, is even funnier, a litany of what a guy needs to do once he has the money to buy the Presidency. But populism can be a hard sell:
The people want glory and the people won’t wait
They want to eat the enemy’s hearts and brains
And lick the plate
Death permeates many of these songs, especially the waltzes. Moody accordion and piano linger in Nail It on the First Try; likewise, another, more Stonesy and similarly gloomy waltz, Poor Bind Birds has a tantalizingly gorgeous organ solo that fades out at the end, way too soon. Maybe that’s symbolic as well. And the most country-flavored number in three-four time, The Kid, traces the grim story of an outsider in cold, destitute upstate “ghost town New York” who never had a chance.
With its insistent, brassy pulse, Salvation Army Girl is a subtle dig at fauxhemians. TV Mama, driven by Jesske Hume’s snappy bass and spiced with soaring pedal steel, is a gentle but snide look at celebrity worship. Hometown Hero, which could be about a returning war veteran, a prisoner out on parole, or both, could be the most forlorn Fourth of July song ever written.
The brisk, ragtimey, shambling Jack Reminiscing is a great story about a local drunk, with a surprise ending that brings reality in through the back door in a split second. The best and most lyrically torrential song on the album is Days of the Years. imagine a dead-serious Marcellus Hall, or Biggie Smalls reincarnated as a highway rock guy:
Watching birds on a drowsy sea
Sitting in the dark of a family tree
Funeral flowers and paperwork
Drowning my dreams in mountain streams
Standing tall in a cap and gown
In a house that is since torn down
It’s summer in the Catskills now
Leisure classes in the mountain passes
The jaws of life and the jaws of death
In secrets in a dying breath
In a black four-door sedan
Down the road to the end of the world
These are the days of the years of my life
The album’s mighty coda is Socrates, a coldly withering anthem which beams the old philosopher down into the here and now and recasts him as a populist songwriter. Once again, as it does throughout the album, the out-of-tune, echoey piano adds a sarcastic old-west edge, in this case against wall-of-sound Sandinista-era Clash guitar orchestration:
When they tie me to the stake
What a great event I’ll make
All of the ratings will soar
High as the war
The pile on the stick
All my books and manuscripts
All of my letters and I will darken the sky
But the sisters of charity committed them to memory
And all of the children will sing my seeds on the wind
We need records like this in times like these. It’ll be on the best albums of 2019 page assuming we get that far.