Folks in upstate New York make albums a little differently, at least if the Felice Brothers' legacy is any indication. After recording their last two albums in a converted chicken coop, brethren Ian and James rounded up their non-Felice cohorts and upgraded to the gymnasium and auditorium of a former high school.
"It hadn't been that long since kids were there, but just enough of an amount of time to make it like a little eerie," says bassist Christmas Clapton of the unusual location in Beacon, a small town some 60 miles due north of New York City. "The auditorium was great — a big room that had a stage and theater seats and stuff like that — but it felt really spooky. It definitely had a vibe."
As does Celebration, Florida, the resulting album that's slated for release next month on the Fat Possum label. A more ambient, less structured work than its predecessors, this is the record that could finally put a damper on critics' perennial comparisons to Dylan, the Band, and contemporary Americana bands.
In addition to the change of venue, the group was operating with one less Felice brother. Drummer Simone left in 2009 to start his own group called The Duke & the King, and was subsequently replaced by Dave Turbeville.
While the Felice Brothers' music has never been as genre-bound as it's made out to be, Celebration, Florida does stand out from the group's earlier efforts. "Fire at the Pageant" is a chunky, rustic number that turns into a shout-along anthem before segueing into "Container Ship," a track that introduced the aforementioned ambience along with sleek keyboard textures and clunky, old-school jabs of percussion. "Honda Civic," by contrast, is a brash rocker that shifts between funky horns and galloping punkish rock. And in the spirit of possibly haunted gymnasiums, "Dallas" is a ghostly, mostly acoustic ballad with strains of old-time country.
That said, this latest album continues to build upon the group's track-record of shambling, rough-around-the-edges, frequently unpredictable roots-rock.
It's an approach that dates back to the band's early days busking in New York City subways. After some proper gigs that generated a growing buzz, the band did some national touring, self-released a 2006 debut album, Through These Reins and Gone, and signed to Conor Oberst's Team Love Records.
While the Felice Brothers now have no problem filling up clubs across the country, they'll still occasionally set up on the street, just to have some fun and keep in touch with their roots. Clapton says the busking experience continues to inform the Felice Brothers' live shows, which can often be spontaneous, unpredictable and rowdy affairs.
"People, when they're walking by, they don't really want to hear your band or anything," he says of the primary street-performance dilemma. "They just want to go buy some cigarettes or something. So we just would have to kind of catch peoples' eye by doing whatever ridiculous shit we could think of. It also made us play louder and scream and stuff like that. I think once we got into that, we were never able to shake it."