The Felice Brothers bring it all back home on their self-titled American debut. The Catskills act – some real-life brothers, some honorary Felices – have been building up a head of steam with their roots revival sound, most recently as openers for Bright Eyes and Drive-By Truckers. However, their only LPs to-date have been the U.K.-only Tonight at the Arizona and the tour-only Adventures of The Felice Brothers, Vol. 1. Now, the band bundles together their chicken-coop recordings (they were literally recorded in a chicken coop) for a fifteen-track heaping of Americana.
One-third of the songs on Felice Brothers were previously on Adventures, and, to be fair, they’re some of the best of either record. They especially dominated Felice’s stronger second half, such as the sad accordion elegy, “Ruby Mae” – one can hear where the comparisons to Mr. I’m Not There himself, Bob Dylan, come from. Things get more relaxed on the Adventures three-set, “Whiskey in My Whiskey”, “Helen Fry”, and “Radio Song”. “Whiskey” is a down-home drinkin’ song, and “Radio” a fun sing-along, with “Helen Fry” a different slice of American history – blues and Cold War femme fatale spies.
But early in Felice comes the greatest piece from either of the two albums, “Frankie’s Gun”, an old-fashioned Southern barroom rollick and stomp. It does, however, shine a bit too bright on the record’s first half, overshadowing the slow, sad numbers that dominate that side. “Little Ann” is a touching piece (though perhaps not the right pick to lead off the release), while “Greatest Show on Earth” is an old-timey sad sing-along. The very slow and quiet “Goddamn You, Jim” is a bit jarring, after “Frankie”, but has an epic, even orchestral, power. The slow and sad march continues through the wistful “Wonderful Life” to the somewhat banal “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow”, the album’s weakest track.
The Felice Brothers turn up the volume with the world-wise, but not world-weary, laid-back drunk of “Take This Bread”, but then turn it back down a bit with another Dylan-esque number, “Saint Stephen’s End” – yet “Stephen” may be the one with more power. The brothers are able to combine their sad and rollicking sides on “Love Me Tenderly”, carrying the audience along with their sing-along. Before the relaxed Adventures triptych comes another sad Felice epic, “Murder by Mistletoe”, but the melancholy piece has the kind of storytelling power that is able to stand up in the second half. The record ends with the spiritual “Tip Your Way”, a fitting finisher.
About to head off on their first big headlining tour, these sons of Appalachia have more than enough material for the journey. While The Felice Brothers is missing their wonderful take on the old Elvis spiritual, “I’m Saved”, maybe that’s something best left in the back-pocket for only the live show (QRO video). And The Felice Brothers have more than enough on their new record to fill the great American appetite.