Until they kicked it in the teeth, pissed on it, and laughed over its emasculated, writhing body with Celebration, Florida.
One glance at this year's lineup for the Newport Folk Festival should enough to convince even the most vigilant amp-busting folkie that the "genre" has been done to a merciless death; there's only so much soul, character, technique, and honesty you can wring from the Delta blues and taditional country before it becomes a gutless, formulaic mush of Grammy fodder (sorry, I had to). Instead of continuing to batter every ounce of the festering, decomposing horse, the Felice Brothers left it to the vultures and got themselves a new one, complete with synthesizers, autotune, clap tracks, and the same Catskill attitude and barroom seasoning on which they built their rabid fan base.
The incomparable "Fire at the Pageant" opens with conflicting sets of noise--almost too perfect an introduction to a motif that defines the album. When the unorthodox buildup finally gives way to the song, the three brothers--Ian, James, and the "adopted" Christmas Felice--weave their shouting vocals between those of a children's choir. "Everybody calm down, please stop shouting," they yelp as James's piano trills clash ominously with half-mechanical-half-natural drums and handclaps. The ensuing verse features two random measures of 808 beats, a taste of musical humor that pervades Celebration, Florida.
A slew of wildly diverse songs--relative both to each other and to the Felice Brothers' back catalogue--aptly fills the tall order of following perhaps the best song released so far this year. The brooding pirate ballad "Container Ship" sets up the upbeat, saloon-style, autotune-layered "Honda Civic" skillfully. The band's newfound inclination toward dance pop is most prevalent in "Ponzi," the weighty, bass driven lead single, and the synth-led "Back in the Dancehalls," in which Christmas sings simply yet poignantly, "Damn, it feels good to be back again."
By time time "River Jordan" comes about, the Felice Brothers' frustration with the fad they helped thrust to the forefront of Indiedom is palpable. The closing track is humid with angst borne of anti-angst and the decomposition of the roots-tinged rock the group perfected and, consequently, left behind. The band drops out as Ian bitterly sings, "Fuck the news / Fuck the House of Blues / Fuck my whole career / You don't want me here," as stunningly impulsive a statement as can be made about the commerciality of music, particularly "folk" music, against the kind of genuine, sweat-soaked rock the Felice Brothers have been turning out for years. Their passion comes out almost as well on their records as it does in their unbelievably energetic live shows, and it starkly contrasts the cold, castrated, inorganic imitation that drove them to such a drastic shift in style. However the shift came about, though, it sounds as natural and intrinsic as the genuine joy for playing, writing, and performing music that has been a staple of the Felice Brothers' material from the band's inception.