LIFE IN THE DARK: THE FELICE BROTHERS

LIFE IN THE DARK [THE FELICE BROTHERS]

At 6000 feet elevation, snowpack runoff sluices Crater Lake which rests in the shell of a collapsed volcano in the Mantezuma Valley of Oregon, the summit of which once stood 12,000 feet tall before before reversing its stature to claim the title of America’s deepest lake one unassuming day nearly 8 millennia past. My passenger window, a portal to another time, is stubbornly filled with blue. I’m telling you this because I want you too to imagine the metallic heat of the Apple Mac ProRetina (9”) singeing my thighs on this winding mountain road. To feel the weight of the aluminum casing pressing down on me as the cab of the Mazda B-Series veers to the left, to the right, and Life in the Dark exhausts itself.

Imagine, now, the incongruity of the machine on my lap pumping out fiddle-folk taps and conjure the landscape outside: Is it possible to relate the pristine splendor of an ancient glacial valley, with a 9-song digital download? Can this music, composed of its own guttural shudders and seismic tremors, compete with the precious silence of the rhyodacite caldera? To set the scene a little more completely, I’d like you to know that earlier I mistook a sign to the campsite amphitheater, painted in white on a wooden post, for our century’s ubiquitous wifi symbol. This is the kind of distortion likely to occur as a pathological effect of high altitude, an experience akin to what singer Ian Felice describes as “looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope”. To reverse one’s gaze in this way necessitates both a sacrifice and a gain, but many will argue inequity in this exchange. A telescope’s intended use, of course, is to enable the little person to see the very big, distant thing: to spot redemptive land from sea; to witness the procession of Jupiter; the Hale-Bopp comet; the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Reverse it and what you get is a front-row view of shadows on a cluttered bedroom wall; tourists lined up at the observatory cafe. In other words, you sacrifice the monumental for the mundane. You pull down the mansion and build a handful of affordable houses: maybe they’re not as photogenic, but there’s a lot more life inside

Life in the Dark (Yep Roc) was available as a full-length video compilation—several days in advance of its official release—through Consequence of Sound’s Premier stream. At a deserted campsite in Clear Lake, California, a friend and I watched all 38 minutes sharing a set of headphones as the sun set behind us, our laptop screen gradually brightening in sync with the moon’s striptease. The footage, a delirious montage of burning buildings, bombings, advertisement training videos and home-movies, is the work of bassist Josh [rod] Rawson, and it casts a beam of sardonic self-awareness on any bungled critiques of lyrical romanticism. Not dissimilar from the opening sequence of Montage of Heck, or the multi-media assemblages of artist collective OK Mountain, Josh massages the vernacular of stock-footage and media saturation, overlaying grainy scenes with jiggling skull graphics and animated text in garish fonts. The album itself made an official debut on Friday 24th June, the day after Britain (my homeland) voted to defect from the E.U. Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the American Dream; the notion of America-as-Utopia fondled by European pioneers; of religious settlement; labor unions; the #plutocracy; the #oligarchy; “Great Britain”; “Make America Great Again”; and the long, cold chain that tethers our self-annihilating continents.

When George Orwell wrote of the “English intellectual [who] would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box”, (a critique of both the hypocrisy of middle-class denizens and their impaired ethics) he couldn’t have foreseen the complex nostalgia of the fantasy of the feudal system in a global context, how it would be immortalized and sold through the Walt Disney franchise, through Harry Potter and The Game of Thrones, through a resurgence in the occult and esoterica (whose mesmeric imagery is rooted in archetypal conditioning)—and in doing so, how relics of feudalism would proceed to tug lefty labor into working-class conservatism, collectivism into neoliberalism.

The Felice Brother’s lyrics, then, call attention to this transmutation of medieval orthodoxy into American corporate capitalism. Lines like, “The King asked me to watch the throne / Off with his head” (“Saturday Night”), or “They say that only 80 men own more than half the world, I had a dream they spread it around I ended up in the mental ward…Farewell to gravity/Farewell to pageantry/Farewell to savagery/And to you your Majesty” (“Plunder”), are steeped in allegorical images that move us through a murky world of court jesters and politicians, casinos and cathedrals, Kings and Captains, movie sets and field hospitals. This album in particular, although it’s an ever-present theme in their writing, uses paradigmatic and violent narratives to bridge time and space between two worlds: the mythical and the modern global-technological, the conflation of which illuminates our experience of present-day America. Their songs, mirroring a generation’s collective disposition, manifest a surreal mix of incredulity tempered with apathy. The result? An ironic, bizarre clusterfuck that reveals more than it seeks to obscure: “I keep reading about your past as a traveling dice player,” a journalist asks Josh for an online webzine. “Can you tell me more about that?” Josh“I don’t know. I think it’s a slander campaign against me, man. I wasn’t a traveling dice player. I got straight A’s in school.”

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With regards to the lyrical quest of Life in the Dark, Ian reflects on the messiness of human nature underpinning it all, succinctly deciding: “…It’s the same old shit!” In album-opener “Aerosol Ball”, a pleasantly choppy but consistent bass line hovers like a string of fluorescent buoys, guiding us through a psychobabble swamp of American lynchpins, baking soda and novocaine: a world of Big Pharma in which “every tooth in Duluth is Baby Ruth proof” (Baby Ruth being the iconic candy bar immortalized in cult classic film The Goonies, and notedly, a favorite indulgence of Richard Nixon who would serve them on Air Force One). Amid references to Sinopec, Viacom and Microsoft rise images of the urban abattoir and the cryonics lab. Consider, momentarily, Amazon’s megalithic temperature controlled “Fulfillment Center” in which the shelves themselves glide lithely across the floor: a choreography of human-robot symbiosis. Smashed against these images of multinational corporations is that of the Phrygian cap, liberty’s soft, drooping headpiece donned in popular culture by The Seven Dwarves and The Smurfs. Draw your own conclusion.

“Jack at the Asylum” carries us deeper down the crap chute of American history, wherein Joshes strangled voice returns unrepentant from the grave to choke Ian: a dangerous, compelling echo. It’s this track which underscores the sentiment of the entire album, pitting the cairns of the American Dream against the American Nightmare it’s become, perhaps always was. The line, “Did you kill your son, Joe Hill?” alludes to a bygone era of leftist union movements and their relationship to early folk music. Hill, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which sought to organize workers from less profitable demographics—the unskilled, migrants, immigrants, minorities—followed in the footsteps of abolitionists and workers of the Gilded Age to make songwriting and poetry a key part of his revolutionary effort. (Hill’s songs reached Guthrie, and the rest, as they say here, is history.) 

On November 19, 1915, Joe Hill was (at sunrise, the history books note), executed by a Utah firing squad. Irrefutably, humankind has progressed over the course of a century. But what do we make of stasis? Last year, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill reinstating the firing squad, comprised of volunteer marksmen, as a reasonable method of execution in the so-called Elevated State. What do we do with that?

***

At this point of writing, I’ve returned to the shore, the dusty stage on which the conflict of water and air plays out. The wind-beaten trees merely collateral damage in a landscape of precious, fragile things. The truck’s door hangs open, resisting hard shoves of air. For hours I sit here, facing the ocean, playing this record on repeat.

There are some songs that, upon listening, elicit the feeling of witnessing a great avalanche. Underfoot, a rumble accompanied by the sensation of danger off in the distance. Nothing to do but await its approach. Eponymous track “Life in the Dark” accomplishes this seductive passivity to the spritely jingle of snowbells. A painfully bleak chorus (“We fall in love and we die, we don’t know when, we don’t know why”) threatens to topple our desperate composure just as a keyboard picks up the melody, flitting like nervous tweety-birds in a cartoon cathedral: “They’re burning the heretics again”. Cue shrill organ trills and a beatific choir ensemble, all the while percussionist Greg Farley is stoking the fire with his fiddle.

Then there are other songs, like “Triumph 73”, which shimmer on the horizon, an harras of wild horses graceful and austere. The simple drumbeat is cavernous, dug out by the ache of a distorted fiddle and the mourning of an electric guitar. Ian’s voice is ahead of his body, down some empty corridor or snaking behind a seemingly locked door. There are echoes of Kerouac and Cassidy—dreams of the road—combined with references to the brutal and perpetual sacrifice of working-class youth: “Ain’t gonna join the Marine Corps, ain’t gonna fight no rich man’s war. There’s too many boys been down that way before.” In moments of fated perversity, such as when an extinguished campfire suddenly bursts back into flames, one must yield to the universe’s inexplicable propensity for pathos.“Triumph 73” operates as mysteriously. It provides a sort of second life for a severed limb, whether the body asked for it or not.

Joe Hill, tending to letters on the eve of his death, wrote to IWW chief “Big Bill” Hayward saying, “Don’t waste any time in mourning — organize.” “Plunder” answers his call. As the mid-list track, it holds itself together with Rock & Roll and Chicago Blues—railing like a church organist on steroids who’s blasting the congregation, companioned by a ramshackle guitar riff to challenge even the chieftain of holy-rollers. Yes, there are lyrical references to eternal damnation and hellish misfortune, but also to modern tech, to self-perpetuating machines (the kind designed to populate Mars before an inevitable showdown with humans), and the important line, “Every time I try to organize, I turn around and my captain dies.” (Thank you, mainstream media, for your relentless anti-Bernie bias.) Again and again with this album we experience (visually, sonically, lyrically) a collision of historical and cultural contexts, and it’s precisely this sweet irreverence for singularity that makes the experience so dizzyingly rich and generationally relevant. If anything, the Felice Brother’s collective output is a record of our slippery nowness, trapping the dislocation of early millennials who weren’t raised in urban centers but did come of age with the internet; who can probably recite lines from both Walt Whitman and Tyler the Creator, Henry James and Harry Potter; who would die for their iPhone but swear by LPs; who wear tie-dye shirts and troll an Instagram account documenting the daily struggles of a fictitious indie-babe intern named Melissa…

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The contradictions weighing on the ethical compass of today’s creator-consumers loom large. When every decision is filtered through the greasy net of corporate infrastructure, the rabbit hole (the fun-house, the loony-bin) can feel like the only escape.“Dancing on the Wing”  is another kind of wormhole. It’s one of those songs with an upbeat melody offset by savage, crippling lyrics, calling to mind all kinds of freakish leaders and fashionable wives; of Dr. (Max Jacobson) Feelgood and Ron L. Hubbard; of William McKinley (who would unceremoniously throw a napkin over the face of his wife, Ida, during her frequent epileptic seizures); of Thomas Edison (who in 1901, filmed McKinley’s second inauguration in Buffalo, New York, during which he was fatally shot at the instance of removing a red carnation from the buttonhole of his coat). *Relatedly, if one dares visit the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, a small glass vial containing Edison’s last breath (one of 42 held by the Edison Estate) can be viewed behind a display case to the right of the door. Or perhaps it’s a nod to Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, aviation stuntwoman for the 1912 Saturday matinee serial, The Perils of Pauline, who went on to become the first woman to own a flying circus before drinking herself to death.

Just as this text modulates and transforms with all the charm of a cootie-catcher, Ian’s lyrics both build and inhabit a world. His lyrics are an invasive species (“1000$ FINE FOR LAUNCHING BOAT WITHOUT MUSSEL STICKER: DEVASTATING ATTACK OF ZEBRA MUSSEL” reads the headline in a local NoCal gazette), internalized and reconfigured in a wrenching vocal display, unifying understated affect with expressive range. We are presented not with a benign narrator, but a wild, unstable seer.

In this album most of all you hear how Ian’s voice has been scarred and stretched by each song in the band’s extensive, decade-long catalogue. On initial release Yonder is the Clock (2005, Team Love Records), there are more individual contributions from the rest of the band, and Ian’s vocals are short and clipped, like the surface of a gravel pit. He spits more than he sings. Life in the Dark, in comparison, is virtuosic. On “Sell the House”, he pushes his voice up a hill of sheer incline and then masters its depressions, swirling gracefully around blind corners and hidden turns. The instrumentation crescendos, it’s delicate but powerful, wistful but controlled. Then the bass drops in and changes everything. The room transforms, empties out. We’re left with the sound of hard knuckles rapping at an empty table. It’s a devastating way to end a song.

***

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To glance momentarily in the rearview mirror, The Felice Brother’s history is as varied as a geological specimen. With each release they have exposed a new strata, rich with potential. In Celebration Florida (2011, Loose Music), for example, there’s a noticeable swagger that marks what is perhaps the most drastic transition in their work, arguably due to Simone Felice’s departure requiring the band to take an innovative approach to drums. Live performances of this era featured Farley on stage with a beat machine taped to a bass drum, the appendage wound tightly with christmas lights. Though the lyrics still reference the likes of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Florida has a definite edge. It’s raw and acerbic, with Josh coughing lines like: “Better watch your mouth kid or I’ll break your neck,” and “Line of K and a diet Sprite / Take my hand, let’s drift through this night”—the songs bristle with a self-assured cockiness woven through an unconventional use of traditional instrumentation. It’s enough to raise hackles on even the most sagacious desert dog. Channeling elements of retro horror/sci-fi b-movie iconography, early rockabilly and noir, Celebration Florida, with its throbbing synth and loose, swollen beats, paves the road to “Saturday Night” and “Chinatown”, two stand-out tracks on Favorite Waitress (2014, Butler Records), an album with a dark, Lynchian undertone. It’s confident and sultry, like sticky lips in a smokey bar, all cherries and brandy washed down with a sleek piano roll. Josh and Ian’s voices grinding against each other on the fault line like tectonic plates or mammoth glaciers.

Of Life in the Dark, Ian recently commented, “We tried to make it as simple and folk-based as possible, because we were working with limited resources. We wanted to take all the frills out and make it just meat and potatoes.” This is an egregiously modest undersell. Yes, Life in the Dark sounds less slickly produced than its predecessors, but in all its stripped down, folk-fair beauty, there exists vaudeville condiments, sprinklings from the music hall, from piano blues and early jazz, from swing, and punk and gospel, and in that sense, it is a natural progression from, not a return to, their earlier work. It’s a record that showcases their love of the mismatched, slightly off-kilter music they most like to play. Hearing the boys scream “Sally!” to a screeching fiddle and sailing accordion in true bluegrass-barn-dance Carter Family Fold style is precisely the kind of reprieve to bring it all back home.

***

It’s much later now. 9PM and the sun has set. My companion (Daniel) and I have set up camp on a forested bluff. The marshmallows are inside of the bear bin with the special latch. A moment ago I got up to throw a few logs on the fire and a white-haired woman approached. She made the sign of the cross on her chest after every sentence, sometimes just tapping her neck with her fist gently balled. “Excuse me,” she whispered, “could you help my husband put up his tent?” Thump. Thump. Her fist hit her collarbone several times. “His name is Chuck. He’s having some trouble.” Thump.

“Sure,” Daniel looked at me quizzically, rising to follow her into the brush. I could hear her muttering, “Dear Lord, help us set up this tent tonight…” as the piñon trees swallowed her voice. I sat alone for a while, writing this as the fire ate itself thin. I sat there for hours, long after Daniel returned and went to bed; long after the mosquitos and flecks of ash dotted the screen; long after the insect bite on my forehead began to swell. Out of the darkness, quite abruptly, came loud moans from the white-haired lady. “No, please Chuck. Please don’t…Please…”

“Shut the fuck up, I swear,” yelled Chuck. Some whimpering. A thump. The fire, eventually, did die out and I crawled into my tent.

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