Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Felice Brothers in Jackson Free Press

Relevancy of Roots

Courtesy University of TennesseeThe Felice Brothers play at Proud Larry's in Oxford on Sept. 19.September 9, 2009

Modern roots music has hit a creative low in recent years. Artists have shown decreasing concern for progressing the genre, focusing instead on "authenticity." Of course, valuing authenticity over progress in any genre is ridiculous and counterproductive. It assures that the genre will never attain creative relevance and, worse, reduces it to mere novelty.

Far too many roots songs are written every year about train-hopping during the Vietnam War, or roaming the countryside in search of rest during the Great Depression. Somehow, artists get a pass on these anachronisms because of their fans' similarly dubious feelings regarding genre authenticity. It is a trait unique to this type of music. If a punk band today wrote songs about the scourge of Thatcherism on society, their fans would most likely tune them out.

The Felice Brothers are a challenge to this turn-back-the-clock mindset. While their sound is rooted in the 1950s and '60s, they draw equally from past and present, trying to bridge this gap instrumentally and lyrically. They have the traditional accordion and fiddle, but also feature electric guitar and electric bass. They sing about being stuck in train stations, but note that they have a broken cell phone in their pocket.

When they do play a song about the past, they deliberately frame it as a flashback as opposed to trying to pass it off as the present.

Their most recent record, "Yonder is the Clock," successfully unites the genre's glory days with the new millennium. It feels simultaneously nostalgic and fresh, and offers ample opportunities for foot stomping. The album's high point, "Memphis Flu," has the raucousness and camaraderie of an impromptu jam session, and is even more infectious than the topic disease. "Chicken Wire" is another up-tempo traditional song, but the prominent electric guitar and bass keep it grounded in the present while also producing a decidedly bluesy edge.

Sandwiched between these faster songs are more restrained numbers, which draw heavy influence from Bob Dylan. This inspiration is impossible to ignore when listening to Ian Felice's similarly strained, soulful voice. "The Big Surprise," "Ambulance Man," and "All When We Were Young" could easily have been pulled from Dylan's back catalog. The calculated, yet beautiful harmonies on many of these slower songs evoke the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions on which Dylan and The Band collaborated.

The Felice Brothers are known for their live performances, as they are one of the harder working bands in music. They are coming to Proud Larry's in Oxford on Sept. 19, which promises to be an entertaining and boisterous show. This is one of the rare bands that pays tribute to its roots, yet has a distinct direction in which they want to go. That's an uncommon combination in modern roots music, and it may enable The Felice Brothers to drag the genre back into relevancy.