Review Summary: Rustic Catskill rockers leave country tunes behind for their most thematic and best album to date.
The Felice Brothers, often perceived as an old-timey, rootsy Americana band, leave their country and barroom tracks behind on their expansive fourth album, Celebration, Florida. The album is easily their most cohesive and thematic to date, filled with sound bites, unconventional percussion, and lush walls of ambient atmospherics. The album was recorded in an abandoned high school in Beacon, NY, in which the band was given an immense freedom of time and space. They made use of much of the high school, but recorded most of the tracks in the library and gymnasium. The echo and space of these rooms can be heard on reverb-soaked tracks like “River Jordan” and “Dallas”.
Additionally, the band recorded themselves slamming lockers, stamping their feet, and throwing books down flights of stairs. These sounds do not feel incongruous, whatsoever. Coupled with the atmospheric sounds of keyboards, reverb and distortion heavy guitars, and synthesizers, they work perfectly. These experimentations are indications of the bands growth, and their newly discovered focus on production. Indeed, while the Felice Brothers' ramshackle, often double and even single tracked previous efforts evoked a genuine, punk rock attitude, the band knew that they couldn't keep making the same kind of records again and again. Thus, this album is a well-produced, well-mixed, and primarily interesting piece of music.
The instrumentation and song structures are really what change on this album. While Yonder is the Clock garnered the band critical acclaim, many fans, myself included, felt that the Felice Brothers were capable of something much greater. Celebration, Florida is this something. While some reviewers have stated their belief that the expansiveness and variety of this album deduct from the band's songwriting, it does not seem this way to me. The dark and brilliant lyricism of band leader Ian Felice has changed only in that it has become more surreal, which fits the album's aesthetic perfectly. Indeed, he may not be singing carefree, barroom foot-stompers like “Loves Me Tenderly,” or “Take This Bread,” because they would feel alien amidst the album's dreamlike environment. While this album may be the Felice Brothers' darkest effort so far, it is also their most beautiful. Ian's literary lyricism melds itself perfectly with the surrealism of the band's slowest, piano driven tracks like “Container Ship,” and “Oliver Stone” (the latter of which features synth work from Grammy-winning musician and producer Malcolm Cecil), as well as the driving and fast paced tracks like “Honda Civic,” and “Ponzi,” and “Cus's Catskill Gym”.
Celebration, Florida keeps the listener interested from the start, with “Fire at the Pageant,” a very Lynchian track about a dead man walking into a quiet, suburban town and revisiting his family. The track features a roaring choir of children, along with the band yelling “12456789 thousand, everybody calm down please stop shouting”. From there the album shifts to a slower pace, then speeds up, and ends somewhere in between with the longest, darkest track on the album, “River Jordan”. The song begins mid-tempo, with a thunderous and persistent beat, has an instrumental interlude halfway through, and finishes with the loudest and most anthemic chorus the Felice Brothers have ever written. It's an incredibly fitting end to a strange but ultimately beautiful album.
What was initially off-putting about this album, for fans (and some reviewers as well), was that the Felice Brothers drop the good-time, country folk feel for something more creative and original. One can't help but compare this to their older releases, but this really needs to be experienced as its own, complete piece of artistic expression. What has changed is that this is not merely a collection of songs that the band wrote here and there, and threw together to make an album. The songs found on Celebration, Florida relate to one another and weave feelings and themes that surface throughout the album's 47 minutes. This album is essential for the band's career, and marks a step into a direction that not enough musicians are taking in modern music: creativity. I recommend this for any fan of interesting music, whether you are already a fan of the Felice Brothers or not.