10 Years Later: Revisiting Felice Brothers’ Standout ‘Celebration, Florida’ LP

In an anomalous act rendered all the more remarkable by the return to roots of their very next LP, Favorite Waitress, the Felice Brothers morphed into the adopted sons of Brian Eno for Celebration, Florida (released 5/10/11). Rather than avoiding technology like a clan of willful Luddites, these ragamuffin rustics born in the Catskill Mountain of New York deliberately utilized production as the primary means to the end of making new music. As a result, it was almost as striking in its own way as those previous albums by which the group created so a vivid collective persona they seemed to have leaped from songs on The Basement Tapes or Music from Big Pink

That said, this 2011 album opener, “Fire at the Pageant,” doesn’t begin all that differently from (or any less deliberately than) their record from two years prior, Yonder is the Clock. As if in an introduction to a piece of cinema, antique sounds of acoustic guitars mesh with background voices, an arrangement that then progresses into the sound of a children’s choir chanting a facsimile of a chain gang song. Coming and going as if in the blink of the mind’s eye, “Container Ship” follows, the only discernible words within which are “pirates,” those uttered just before the track fades to the sound of a dramatic horn section.

Balanced on a deliberate and deep drumbeat that would appear to extol the virtues of “Honda Civic” (or is it critique of consumerism?), Ian’s wan voice references mass confusion on the interstate, Thus, the thought also occurs this number might recount the observations of an individual who can’t help slow down to look at an auto accident. More contemporary images arise with the passage of the dolorous “Oliver Stone,” rife with ponderous piano and the keening sound of a high-pitched organ. Meanwhile, “Ponzi” suggests it might be helpful to have the lyrics included in addition to or instead of the bizarre and cryptic photos on the inside of the digi-pak: after all, there is a four-page enclosure with a lengthy list of credits. 

Then again, while a literal reading of the words, otherwise submerged in the mix, might confirm lingering ambiguous impressions, such clarity might well drastically reduce the mystery surrounding these songs and the recordings thereof. Supervised by producer Jeremy Backofen, who’d overseen previous projects of the Brothers, this collection of original material was recorded in a makeshift studio created at the high school of “Cus’s Catskill Gym.” Little wonder it sounds like nothing so much as a composite of images lifted from a dream shared by the Felice Brothers.

More to the point, the eleven tracks that comprise Celebration Florida, running about 45 minutes total, are more than a little akin to a well-crafted horror movie. Off-putting as some tracks might sound, it’s still hard to stop listening, whether the subject is “Back in the Dancehalls,” “Dallas” or “Best I Ever Had.” And while the melancholy likes of the last cut, purposefully arranged as a soundtrack to an imaginary conversation, fails to conjure the exuberant air of the band stage, there is a palpable air of deliverance on the concluding cut “River Jordan:” in its own way, it is as mesmerizing as the rest of this album, which, on the whole, is equally haunting and repellent.

Although sibling Ian’s 2017 solo album In the Kingdom of Dreams features its share of synthesized sounds, The Felices has never made another album quite like Celebration Florida. Despite the constant shifting of personnel, the group has continued to hone the rootsier, more earthy style through Life In The Dark, (itself as dark and vaguely foreboding as this LP if not more so). The Brothers subsequently expanded the scope of their sound with the socio-political themes of Undress in 2019, all of which inner-directed activity, in the wake of this decade-old album, illustrates the wisdom of William Blake’s saying “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” 

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