Since the early zeros, the Felice Brothers have carved out a distinctively lyrical, often savagely populist highway rock sound. Their previous album Undress ranked high on the Best Albums of 2019 list here. Their latest vinyl record, From Dreams to Dust – streaming at Bandcamp – maintains its predecessor’s dark undercurrent, throughout a series of character studies and mini-movies. This one’s much more keyboard-centric, and as a result, somewhat quieter, although the political rage and dystopic cynicism are hardly muted. It’s one of the best and most smartly lyrical rock records of the year.
Take the opening track, Jazz on the Autobahn. Aside from a broodingly wafting trumpet, it doesn’t have much to do with jazz, and the setting is not Germany, but a highway that could be in Texas. Over a familiar set of changes made famous by the Who, frontman Ian Felice does a talking blues about a guy and a girl agreeing to disagree about very detailed apocalyptic predictions. In typical Felice Brothers fashion, there’s a punchline, and it’s not what you expect.
The rest of the record veers from the lighthearted, ragtimey, Creedence-ish To-Do List, to the withering echoey noir soul spacerock of Money Talks:
Money talks with a voice as shrill
As the hiss of a chemical spill
Down the alleys of Pleasantville
On a summer’s day
Money talks like a dial tone
The suicide and the open phone
Affordable suburban homes
By a starlit lake
All the Way Down is not the Dead Boys classic but a surreal and irreverent conversation with the Almighty set to pensive piano-driven chamber pop. The piano raises the gospel atmosphere several notches higher in Be at Rest, a spoken word piece that might be a self-penned elegy.
The backdrop shifts to a swaying 6/8 country sway for Valium, a Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness commentary on American archetypes and mass-media brainwashing – it seems to predate the lockdown.
Likewise, Inferno is not a global warming cautionary tale but a brooding, hazy, mostly acoustic reminiscence of blue-collar teenage anomie. However, the wryly Randy Newman-inflected next song, Silverfish, could be interpreted as a tale of apocalypse by insectile invasion.
Celebrity X, a goofy but snidely spot-on litany of Hollywood pseudo-intrigue, sounds a lot like Marcellus Hall, right down to the deadpan vocals. After that, drifting orchestration and spare piano lowlight an understatedly cynical commentary on the perils of nostalgia for an age that never existed in The Land of Yesterdays
Blow Him Apart is a country-flavored salute to righteous revenge, from the knowing, hardscrabble point of view of someone who “Got laughed at by future starts, they get their Masters’ from Juilliard; I learned to sing in a chicken coop.” The album ends with We Shall Live Again, a big folk-rock epic that’s as poignant as it is funny – and creepy:
The clouds are at the winds’ command
A great extinction is close at hand…
Remember Hegel, that beautiful son of a bitch
Or Marcel Proust, you thought he ruled the roost
He’s drinking a drink that’s black as ink
Watching a candied cherry sin
It’s like the sorrow of the world distilled
We shall live again