Monday, June 1, 2009

Someone Else Besides Me Thinks Simone Felice Is the Best Thing In Rock and Roll!

Neal McCormack
Simone Felice: the greatest singer-songwriter you've never heard of

Someone (a big figure in the music business) said to me 'Where are all the songwriters?' as if it is a lost art, in danger of extinction. But when anyone laments falling standards in music, I want to say get the cobwebs out of your ears.

I went to a gig last week as good as any I have ever seen, by a relatively unknown singer & songwriter (and performer) working at the very highest level of his art. Simone Felice is the drummer and just one of the writers in The Felice Brothers, and if you read this blog regularly you will know how I feel about them. The main writer in The Felice Brothers is probably his brother Ian, whose leftfield, slightly surrealist Americana dominates their fantastic new album 'Yonder Is The Clock'.

Although Simone (I don't know what the "e" is doing in his name, but he's a dude) contributes to that album, he is currently on sabbatical with his own project, The Duke And The King, with George Clinton collaborator Robert 'Chicken' Burke. It's a kind of cracked country soul thing, with a dash of psychedelia, and at the heart of it are Simone's songs which are, honestly, the best I have heard in a while, touching the hem of Dylan by way of Gordon Lightfoot.

There is a boldness to Simone's writing, the fierceness and fearlessness of complete honesty that pushes them into places that simply take the breath away. He is not breaking new ground, but working within the melodic and lyrical structures of folk and country and soul, and some of his songs are so perfectly formed they sound like they might have been around forever (or at least since the early 70s) like the beautiful 'Water Spider' and elegiac 'If You Ever Get Famous', both of which can be heard on his website.

But when he tells stories from his own life, as he did on the Felice Brothers remarkable 'Scarecrow' (which I think is lyrically the greatest song of recent years, with its incredible internal rhyming scheme, bold metaphor and powerful emotion) he goes to places few artists ever touch. He does it again on 'Union Street', relating a tale about teenagers growing up stoned and lost in hard circumstance in New York with a dreaminess that belies the harshness of the tale told. It's a bit like a Larry Clark movie in music.

But the stand out track on his forthcoming album, 'Nothing Gold Can Stay' (to be released in July on Loose records) is called, rather boldly, 'One More American Song'. If you write something with that title, you really have to deliver, and Simone does. In the hands of Bon Jovi it would be a pompous fists aloft blow out, but this is a sad, understated anthem for the lost idealism of America, in which he lets no one off the hook, least of all himself, with a harsh opening admission "If I had a cinder block / For every lie I've told / I could build us a house, fine as any city block / To keep us out of the cold."

There are lines of cruel beauty in there, such as this striking verse about a veteran:

John was a quiet boy in School

Johnny with the fiery red hair

He went in the army, like a lot of them do

And he got ****ed up over there

And if you see him now, he pushes a shopping cart in the parking lot

If you call him, he don't hear a thing

They call him John The Priest, John The King Of Bottle Tops

Priest or pawn, his war's still on

Its just one more American song

But the song concludes with a wistful hope, carried lightly on rhymes that just trip from the tongue:

"I can hear that band

They're near at hand

And I really hope its not the wind again

Don't be long boys

I'm hanging on

For just one more American song"

When The Duke And The King came here, four of them slept in the house of the head of their tiny record label. They played Bush Hall in Hammersmith, to a couple of hundred people. But they played their hearts out. It was funny and touching and amazing, and they carried us aloft so that everyone was singing along to songs they were hearing for the first time. Everyone in that room knew they were witnessing something special.

There are many in the music business who think we should be worrying about the end of recorded music sales and its affect on the music industry as we know it, but when I see someone like Simone Felice (and, for that matter, the Felice Brothers) forcing their own way through against all the odds, I think its time for a change. The major labels pump fortunes into promoting ersatz singer-songwriters like James Blunt and James Morrison, while someone as outstanding as Simone Felice operates in the margins of popular culture, on tiny labels, supported by the love and admiration of the few who recognise his extraordinary talent. These songs are good enough to be sung by the whole world, if only people got to hear them.

Spread the word.