On my first spin through The Felice Brothers’ new album From Dreams To Dust I found my new favorite song of 2021. The second track “To-Do List” is a rootsy, rocking romp through existential angst disguised as a humorous list of tasks the narrator sets out for himself. Lead singer and songwriter Ian Felice details tasks from the mundane (“cancel Better Homes and Gardens”) to the miraculous (“declare a lasting peace”) to the rumbling background laid down by bassist Jesske Hume and drummer Will Lawrence, plus piano from multi-instrumentalist brother James Felice, and his own stabbing electric guitar leads.
The Felice Brothers have been on my radar for years but I confess this is the first I’ve checked them out. I’m regretting my omission. This is smart and catchy music.
From Dreams To Dust is their eighth album. Ian (guitar and lead vocals) and James (multi-instrumentalist and vocals), grew up in the Catskills of New York – you know, where all those summer camps are, and Woodstock. In addition to being musicians of note, Ian is a published poet, and it shows. Their current lineup includes Hume and Laurenceas well as Nathaniel Walcott on trumpet and the ubiquitous Mike Mogis on pedal steel.
Future anthropologists (if there are any) may look back at music, art, movies and books from this era and, if they don’t know about the pandemic, climate change and political unrest we’re going through, may wonder WTF was going on. This album is one of those things. It’s a kaleidoscopic whirl, sometimes upbeat and sometimes slow and gloomy, through all the doom and darkness that hangs over our heads, and then some. Beginning with the first track “Jazz On The Autobahn,” the overture to the album, as it were, a booming tale of someone named Helen and The Sheriff who are driving together in a “doomed Corvette.” “All The Way Down” (a play on the concept of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, held on the backs of an infinite number of turtles) is a rumination about the false hope of artificial intelligence. “Valium” is a meditation on everything we use to numb ourselves, “Inferno” and “Celebrity X” explode the concepts of celebrity and other American fever dreams. “Be At Rest” is Ian’s eulogy for himself, whose failings and quirks he unstintingly describes in loving detail: “Never once named Employee of the Month / Lover of 24-hour laundromats / avoider of eye contact / avoider of blood drives / Be at rest, my friend.”
James Felice wrote some of these songs too, and they’re in the same vein. In “Silverfish” he details a series of encounters with scary or creepy insects and other animals, and keeps coming back to the chorus, a haunting incantation of “I gotta do something …” His mournful ballad of a friend who lost at love, “Blow Him Apart,” graphically depicts how badly he was destroyed by rejection: “they’ll find pieces of that boy’s heart when they get to Mars.”
The album ends on a barebones acoustic song that feints at hopefulness, “We Shall Live Again.” It’s an American odyssey that rolls Dylan and Baez and Seeger and the McMurtrys father and son and every clear-eyed folk singer who ever strummed a chord, onto a ghostly train heading forever into the West, as they all comtemplate extinction and philosophy and what rhymes with death.
If you like sharply poetic lyrics in aggressively engaging musical settings, don’t sleep on this one.
(Yep Roc, 2021)