Review Summary: You shall live again.
To his son he leaves a cloudless sky,
One pair of ill fitting shoes
To his wife a box of undeveloped negatives
A bowl of onion soup
From dreams to dust
Death is a concept that could be perceived a thousand different ways. To many, it is the end game; the screen goes black and we are oblivious to the fact that we ever existed, even for a single moment. Some will draw immense relief from this, while others are so terrified by the thought of eternal nothingness that they'd rather burn in a mythical lake of fire just to be
. The glass-half-full types might view it as the beginning of a beautiful new chapter, where we take another form either here on Earth or somewhere in the ethos. Everyone has their own version of what happens in the moments following the cessation of all brain synapses and heartbeats. For Ian Felice - the lead singer/songwriter for The Felice Brothers - the answer is quite plain, and he makes no bones about passing that philosophy on to his four year old son: "There’s no one to pray to / Because you know who made you / And you can just ask me." This is the sort of stark lyrical content one can expect to find throughout From Dreams to Dust
; an album largely motivated by the blunt nature of death. Themes of finality course throughout the veins of the record, prompting Felice to question the importance of his everyday routine, ponder the end of the world, and observe the passage of time in unique and sometimes humorous ways. As these twelve songs work in unison to elucidate the meaning of the title From Dreams to Dust
, listeners will come to realize that the album has less to do with "the end" - or what comes after death - as it does motivating us to live.
The impetus for such dreary and emotional content might be stemming from the death of Ian's stepfather, whom he paid tribute to on 'In Memoriam' from his 2017 solo debut In The Kingdom of Dreams
. Here however, the focus is mostly turned inward. On 'Be at Rest', which features the album's title "from dreams to dust", Felice imagines his own eulogy, and it goes something like this: "Mr. Felice, 6’ 148 lbs / Soft teeth, sleep deprived, below average student / Owner of 2 ill-fitting suits." He goes on in rather hilarious self-deprecating fashion, almost a list of his own idiosyncratic flaws, and it's illustrative of how Ian is able to seamlessly weave humor into something as serious as his own demise. It's an important point to make, because for as much as From Dreams to Dust
grapples with weighty existential topics, The Felice Brothers manage to maintain a deft balance between insightful and lighthearted - never oscillating too far on the pendulum to constitute something frivolous or completely grave. The approach works wonders, spellbinding listeners with the depth of Ian's seriously underrated lyrical and storytelling capabilities while also providing aloof comedy as an escape; a means of disarming the situation when things start to get too tense. It's the same defense mechanism that many of us utilize in real life when facing something as bleakly linear as death, and it feels fitting here as well. At the song's conclusion, Ian loosens up on the tongue-in-cheek self-disparagement with an uplifting set of lines: "To his son he leaves a cloudless sky...to his wife a box of undeveloped negatives", and it's almost a tear-jerking sentiment. These two things represent infinite possibilities; perhaps his own unfulfilled dreams passed on to his loved ones. In the course of just over two and a half minutes, The Felice Brothers will have you laughing and crying - and such is the nature of From Dreams to Dust
Elsewhere, Ian spends a lot of time reflecting on what he's doing with his life now. 'To-Do List' is a song title that helps explain what might otherwise seem like a haphazard juxtaposition of thoughts: "Finish The Wealth of Nations
, discover a miracle drug / Learn all supreme court justices' names, and test the limits of love." His bucket list ends up ranging from admirable ("Find out what's killing the bees"..."Rise up in the name of liberty, throw out my fascist berets") to absurd ("Buy a spinach colored dinner jacket"..."Build a maze of styrofoam"), but again the humor is surprisingly effective amid the more serious overtones. From Dreams to Dust
's sense of mortal urgency is best encapsulated on 'Silverfish', where Felice - after a drawn out series of dissatisfied laments over his stagnant life, sings "A red tailed hawk ate my neighbor’s dog, just carried her away / I gotta do something." The implication is clear, and it's the driving force behind the entire album. What is a dream one day can turn to dust the next.
Even as From Dreams to Dust
delves into some of the most though-provoking and important questions that anyone can ask about life or death, there's still a sense of postmodern awareness that expands the album's scope beyond the narrator's own purview. On the opener, we're led into a story between two people - Helen, the wife of a Texas oil tycoon, and a man simply known as "the sheriff" - as they argue about what the apocalypse will sound
like. It's a thematic tone-setter on an album brimming with allusions to society's demise: at various times, The Felice Brothers reference rising fascism, polluted environments, "plagues", riots, and stock market crashes. No amount of fictional characters or tale-spinning can distract from the album's eerie links to the present (or the future, if we allow it) - and it frames this piece's exigency while bolstering it with context. If this becomes some sort of cult classic observed by future generations of folk connoisseurs, the link to the present setting will be identified as an undeniable influence and chief motivator behind some of the lyrical and content inclusions; casual references to cultural icons like AC/DC, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Kurt Cobain notwithstanding. All of this is merely to say that From Dreams to Dust
certainly reaches beyond its own imaginative sphere to capture the essence of what it was like to create music amid a worldwide pandemic and global political strife.
The cleverness, versatility, and magnitude of this album's concept and lyrics nearly overshadow what is also a superb album musically. From Dreams to Dust
plants its feet equidistantly between country/Americana and indie-rock, excelling at setting a quaint/rustic tone which mirrors the Currier & Ives styled artwork without sounding all that much like any other artist currently making waves in those genres. Part of the credit for the pristine, pastoral acoustics goes to Ian Felice for recording this in a church that he restored himself. As for his vocal contributions, Ian sounds like a compromise between Bob Dylan and Colin Meloy, which is appropriate given the former's storytelling ability and the latter's penchant for elaborate concepts/imagery. James Felice, who also contributes vocals (not to mention piano, keyboards, and accordion) plays arguably just as important of a role, as his multi-instrumentalism is what makes it possible for From Dreams to Dust
to take its elegant, rural shape. Drummer Will Lawrence shines throughout, but perhaps never brighter than on 'Money Talks', where he chimes in with a thunderous and impactful drum fill following Ian's taunt of "tick tock goes the doomsday clock." The inclusion of bassist Jesske Hume (who joined the band in 2019) sees The Felice Brothers push into some new and more elaborate territory rhythmically, while guest appearances from Mike Mogis (pedal steel) and Nate Walcott (horns) allow the band to depart into jazzier territory like 'Jazz On The Autobahn' and ''Blow Him Apart'. It's a stunning collaboration of talent, and one that results in what is, quite simply put, one of the most beautiful, poignant, and utterly unique country-folk albums that you'll hear all year.
To say that From Dreams to Dust
is an expected triumph wouldn't quite be the case. The Felice Brothers have had a respectable career, especially early in their discography, but they've endured multiple lineup changes and have flirted with dissolving the group on more than one occasion - even by Ian's own admission in an interview with Rolling Stone
where he stated, "It feels so ephemeral. Bands don’t last, they fall apart every day...Over the years, there have been many times where I’ve thought, 'Yeah, this is probably it'." In the face of such obstacles, this new-look outfit has just crafted the best work of the band's fifteen year lifespan. Considering all of this album's allusions to death and making the most out of life, it's fitting then that after months of social distancing and impending disbandment that they were able to rebound so strongly with this piece. It's as The Felice Brothers sing in such liberated fashion on the record's triumphant curtain call, a harmonica-laden eight minute adieu that sees the narrator's perspective from 'Be at Rest' finally altered: "We shall live again." From Dreams to Dust
packs all the wit, creativity, and emotionally compelling depth that you'd expect from a band leading the country/Americana charge - until now, we just didn't know that band was The Felice Brothers.
The wind took my train up into the chasms of the sky
And in the air hung a golden trumpet
Some warn of heaven and its narrow gate
The baby angels are armed and overweight
As they float above the turnstile and sing
You shall live again, you shall live again