I've been spinning an early copy of Yonder Is The Clock (2009, Team Love) for the last few weeks and the simple fact that I've continued to listen is testament enough. The Felice Brothers' new disc (which, by my count, is their fifth album) delivers on all levels. Sure, the album contains as many skippable tracks (they can become rather stagnant at times) as any of their previous efforts, but that has yet to make a single one any less enjoyable. The new one borrows equally from each of their earlier collections but matures in all the categories that really count.
The songwriting - and vocals for that matter - falls mainly on the shoulders of Ian Felice. His ability to create characters that perfectly fit his whiskey-graveled, heart-broken yet optimistic howl is the band's strongest attribute. Here, Ian shows progress in his lyrics as well as his melodic awareness. Also showing much improvement on Yonder... is the instrumentation of the rest of the gang. Simone's unorthodox percussion is sharper than ever, helping to push the songs through unique arrangements and single-handedly driving the handful of groovy breakdowns present on the new album. James' tasteful accordion brings more of a zydeco ambiance, rather than the polka-feel it previously added.
'Big Surprise' is a one of the boys' slower tunes that works well. Whether it's the sporadic yet commanding rhythm of the drum kit or Ian's foreboding lyrics, the song serves as a perfect intro. It pleads the listener to sit and thoughtfully take the album in. The brothers used this same ploy at the show I caught in Austin, opening with the song on an unlit stage.
To come through on his lyrical and emotional promise, Ian leads track two to the other side of the tempo spectrum. 'Penn Station' is easily one of the standout tracks, recalling the allure of 'Frankie's Gun.' The song sounds like an impromptu performance played at the party celebrating the narrator's resurrection. Never a writer to shy away from the theme of death, Ian also brings us 'Chicken Wire,' a lively blues progression with an infectious melody. He seems to almost enjoy the inevitability of his eventual resting place on the ocean floor.
To be honest, much of the middle of the disc borders on sappy, 'Ambulance Man' taking the elevator to the basement and 'Sailor Song' finding a dark closet once there. The love ballad 'Katie Dear' offers light solace, aided by a well-chosen horn solo. But things are thrown back in the fast lane with 'Run Chicken Run.' Barn-stomping fiddle, zydeco accordion, and chorale backups paint a picture of the dreadful fate of a low-man in the underbelly of NYC boroughs. Simone Felice takes the lead for a surprisingly peaceful ditty in 'All When We Were Young.' 'Boy From Lawrence County,' dripping with desperation, reminds me of 'Rockefeller Druglaw Blues' - simple acoustic guitar overlayed with accordion. This is where The Felice Brothers shine, albeit not overly obvious.
If you had any question as to how the band plays live, 'Memphis Flu' is your ticket to a packed barroom with The Felice Brothers. It may not always stay under control, or even be coherent, but it sure is fun. Track 12 of 13 is the ultimate treasure on the album. 'Cooperstown' is simple, elegant, and perfectly written. A Neal Young-esque upper-range acoustic lick intercedes verses that effortlessly tie the lessons the great American pastime into life experiences.
The Felice Brothers have created yet another essential element to any Americana collection - even if it's a portrait of a dusky, backwoods America.
Purchase Yonder Is The Clock - CD/Vinyl/MP3