The Felice Brothers Mold Opportune Musical Chances Into Brave Results Via ‘From Dreams to Dust’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Describing themselves online ‘as an American folk rock/country rock band,” the Felice Brothers are humble to a fault and perhaps even do a disservice to themselves. While the genre references are generally accurate, the density of thought in their material is remarkable, no matter how obvious the roots or understated the presentation. And though much of From Dreams to Dust may sound dour to a fault, there are more than just traces of wry and intelligent humor within. It just requires close, concentrated listening to hear those distinctive elements. 

This eighth Felice studio work was recorded by the latest lineup, including actual siblings Ian and James plus Brothers bassist and inaugural female Felice member Jesske Hume (Conor Oberst, Jade Bird) and singer/songwriter/drummer Will Lawrence. To aid in maintaining a decidedly less-is-more approach, while also integrating themselves with this sturdy rhythm section throughout the dozen tracks, trumpeter Nathaniel Walcott and pedal steel player/Marxophonist Mike Mogis provide judicious accents with their respective instruments; it’s not then surprising the latter mixed the LP, which was otherwise produced by the Felices themselves.

In a continuation of that personalized ethos of independence that’s always been the Brothers’ hallmark, their recording methods are as idiosyncratic as the avoidance of conventional structure in their original songs. From Dreams to Dust was recorded in a renovated church, all the better to play oddities like “To-Do List” seeming off the tops of their heads: this take is, in fact, the very first time the quartet played the song and they impart that distinct impression with Lawrence bashing away at his drumkit while Ian fires off two skewered electric guitar solos as if it just occurred to him to take those breaks. In contrast to this deeply tongue-in-cheek number, the piano-dominated “All The Way Down” is the definition of somber, but no less credible in its mood than the loopy one just prior. 

Surreal as are the words to songs like the latter–‘You are the union/Of an ape in an apron/And a break in the clouds’–the lyrics might well have been included within the CD or LP packaging of From Dreams to Dust (or made available on-line,) if only to encourage the most discerning listening possible. In this case, the dominant acoustic piano almost imperceptibly gains momentum until the three-minute five-second track abruptly ends, seemingly as soon as it began. The spoken interlude on “Money Talks,” however, goes on too long, overstating an anti-mercenary message by at least half. Or so it seems until some haunting voices appear behind Ian to harmonize with him as he strains to hit the required notes with his vocal. 

“Be At Rest” is more of a piece, a refrain consisting of little more than the title phrase conjuring a mood at once elegiac and subtly uplifting. Likewise, in his deliberate sung/spoken delivery on “Valium,” Ian conveys a litany of images in which there are no forced rhymes but rather the woeful strains of pedal steel that indirectly invoke traditional country music and Pentecostal TV sermons without directly mentioning either: in its own inimitable way, it’s tour-de-force rendered all the more accessible—and memorable—for the offhanded air of the singing and the playing (not to mention the red herring of title?!), as is also the case with the borderline scabrous attitude with “Celebrity X.”

The Felice Brothers take great chances with performances like these, but make them sound wholly natural based on unerring instincts they’ve honed over the years. “Inferno,” for instance, comes across like an epiphany, with the acoustic guitar backing gently cementing an impression as bizarre as it is (near) transcendent. Meanwhile, “Silverfish” is no less hallucinatory, it’s altogether heavenly group singing echoing the chimes of piano near the end, the dream-like atmosphere ultimately correlating to the idyllic wintertime scene of this album’s front cover art. 

The last Felices LP, 2019’s Undress, carried more than a little topical sensibility an approach the band maintains here in the concluding trilogy of tunes that conclude the LP. It doesn’t take a political junkie to interpret the (un)hidden meanings in “Land of Yesterdays,” “Blow Him Apart” and “We Shall Live Again,” but then again, the purposeful sequencing of these cuts also calls to mind the rigors of quarantine within the pandemic. That these Brothers proffer such a hopeful note on their chosen closer (nearly) renders moot the absence of at least one other upbeat number like the opener, “Jazz On The Autobahn;” one more such deceptively visceral track would only render From Dreams To Dust an even more thought-provoking experience.

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