Cloaking a fear of doom and uncertainty in a joyful, vibrant sound is the name of the game on the latest release from The Felice Brothers, From Dreams to Dust. Ruminating on what often feels like end times, James and Ian Felice have created textured story-poems about survival and the legacies we leave in our wake, however dismal.
The band’s eighth album found them recording in an 1800s church in upstate New York, restored by Ian Felice himself, in keeping with the Felice Brothers’ tradition of making music in unusual environments. The place lends the songs on From Dreams to Dust a certain epic largeness that echoes and reverberates straight through to the soul. Piano notes sound more profound, and pedal steel seems to linger in the atmosphere like a spirit. Combined with James’ breathy rasp and Ian’s warm howl, with Jesske Hume and Will Lawrence on bass and percussion respectively providing the album’s heartbeat, the sounds created here are some of the band’s most outstanding.
Slipping easily back and forth between fictional historical narratives — like the cursed fates of the lovers at the center of album opener “Jazz on the Autobahn” — and startlingly beautiful meditations on personal nostalgia like “Inferno,” the songwriting on From Dreams to Dust is rich and detailed. Surroundings deteriorate slowly, taken over by strange forces on the darkly comical “Silverfish”: “My Honda Fit’s got mice in it / the biggest investment of my life’s infested with mice,” sings Ian. “I gotta do something.” The tangled and torrid dystopian weave of “Celebrity X” takes us on a journey of intrigue and danger, while “Blow Him Apart” finds the beauty in scrappy resourcefulness and self-determination.
Spoken word sometimes substitutes for the brothers’ singing, and in the case of “Be at Rest,” it is as a will-reading accompanied by organ notes and the loveliest background melody. Eulogizing oneself could seem morbid, but in this case, it’s done with sly humor with lines like “Never once named Employee of the Month,” and “Once spent over two months stuck in a painting by Bruegel the Elder.” He leaves his son “a cloudless sky” and “one pair of ill-fitting shoes,” and his wife “a bowl of onion soup.”
James and Ian Felice chronicle a burning and flooding earth, the evil forces of capitalism, and other plagues in a way that never makes us plug our ears or cover our eyes. Instead, they find some humor and hope in it all, a good lesson for pushing forth.