Ian Felice - In the Kingdom of Dreams

by Mark Moody Rating:6 Release Date:2017-08-25

The Felice Brothers have been kicking around New York – both rural and urban – for over ten years now and garnering a small but loyal following along the way. The band’s sound has developed a bit over the years to fuller instrumentation, but is still marked by the dusty, creaky folkiness that defined them early on. From recording in a chicken coop to even still recently a friend’s garage, the band has almost defied broader success by sticking to a sense of place that comes through in their music. Middle brother and bandleader Ian has recorded a solo album entitled In the Kingdom of Dreams that strips things down even further to the sparest of parts. Technically he has reassembled the original band with the return of Simone who has “production” credit here, but aside from some gently played piano and drums on a few tracks, this is basically in the vein of a guitar based folk album. The heavy finger picking style used to great effect on the title track and ‘In Memoriam’ is what carries most of the songs here, with the latter recalling Mississippi John Hurt with lead notes and bass notes played together.

The songs concern themselves for the most part with Heaven and Hell, death and dying, and all the while the recurrence of dreams throughout keeps the listener off balance a bit as to whether these are real or imagined events. There are also some vaguely political songs and some more directly personal. The album starts promisingly with ‘Kingdom of Dreams’ which has an ominous tone, deft and fuller instrumentation and abounds in obscure lyrics – not wanting to stand at the Xerox machine, wandering town in a hospital gown. The words don’t distract from this song given the strength of the guitar playing, but given how sparse most of the other tracks are the lyrics take the forefront and several songs suffer from some clunky lines that hit like a missed note.   It’s hard to move on past lines like – “Well the aliens landed on Election Day, and they stole your mother’s lingerie” or “Oprah feeds the minotaur” on ‘21st Century’. Maybe the song is just stream of consciousness or dream interpretation but sung so forcefully it’s hard to swallow. The chorus of the song letting us know we’ve all been had and banjo as lead instrument partially make up for the awkward lyrics, but other songs tread the same path. ‘In Memoriam’ which recounts the death of his stepfather and the impact to his mother is surely heartfelt, but marred by the line, “She was watching The Price Is Right or the Wheel with Vanna White”, which just interrupts the flow. The worst offender though has to be the political warning of ‘Road to America’ which has one of the best lines of the album – “white picket fences aflame”, but also in a weird bridge later on sprinkled with church bells speaks about the “empire of Donald Duck”, which is either a reference to some earlier line about “Walt Disney carving the Sunday roast” or a pretty ineffective swipe at Donald Trump. Trump’s a pretty easy and cynical target so for a folk song something a little more biting would be apropos.

The most frustrating thing for me is the knowledge of what this solo effort could have been if all the songs were as incisive as a few of them. The assessment of his surroundings and feelings on ‘Water Street’ are devastating in their detail and while dealing with a straightforward subject of being a husband and recent father are so honestly observed it shows what might have been in contrast. The song starts simply with “I have a wife and a new born baby and a new house at the end of Water Street” and has deeply evocative lines like – “hedges drink the rain, coffee clogs the drain”. The deceptively simple and beautiful start belies the complexity of thought shortly thereafter comparing his own father walking out and never coming back to his own walks along the tracks, where he then says “but I always come right back, and feed the cats in the boiler room.” The minor key ‘Signs of Spring’ is another of the more straightforward but sincere tracks that avoids any awkward steps. Felice does well wearing his heart on his sleeve, smartly observing detailed thoughts/feelings and avoiding the more farcical lines that are just hard to let go.

The album unfortunately ends on a whimper, with the two weakest tracks. Both come across as overly serious with no real impact. The closing ‘In the Final Reckoning’ starts with a line about “reading my shadow the comic strips” and tries to deal with the crisis of civility in America taking a swipe at a “famous businessman” by telling him he has “endless potatoes to peel”. Again, maybe we aren’t supposed to figure this out and it could be recalled dreams that have no choice but to be told as is, but presented so plainly the listener is forced to grapple with it. There are more misses than hits here and that’s too bad, the fuller sound of the Felice Brothers’ releases allows for some offbeat lyrics shined up by a strong melody. But for better or worse, stark folk music lives or dies by the lyrics and these just aren’t solid enough to carry a full album.   

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