2008’s The Felice Brothers was near the top of my end of year list, its strength coming from the way it caught the imagination with its rustic, cracked and weary charm. It contained songs played with minimal fuss and maximum heart and it was a breath of fresh air amongst the angst and art of many of the year’s other releases. Anticipation of a new album so soon in 2009 was high and I felt this one would be their breakthrough to a wider audience. Alas it is not to be, though by the same token it is no step backwards, more a holding pattern or a pause for breath.
Yonder Is The Clock essentially takes up from where The Felice Brothers left off and the opening track ‘The Big Surprise’ is a strangely subdued stroll through tentative percussion and a swelling but unfulfilling lament. Any misgivings about that track are quickly forgotten as the stomping accordion driven ‘Penn Station’ reminds us of how gloriously ramshackle the brothers can be. It is a cacophony of harmonica, fiddle and handclaps that descends into a barn dance complete with breaking glasses.
The title of the album is drawn from the pages of a Mark Twain novel and refers to the American ghosts that lend their stories to the songs. There is indeed a wide range of topics, covering the spectrum of old and new America, from train stations and influenza to long winters and lost love. The themes are another continuity from the last record, this time ‘Katie Dear’ replaces ‘Ruby Mae’ as the object of Ian Felice’s desire.
‘Sailor Song’ is a delicate ballad tempered by a gruff Tom Waits drawl that paints a picture of a lonely singer at a desolate late night bar. The accordion of James Felice carries the mournful melody with great restraint for an instrument often used too enthusiastically. The song works well as it sits comfortably within their range and is treated with musical subtlety. In contrast ‘Run Chicken Run’ is a rollicking run through a standard rocking rural singalong. It is all good fun but seems like too much of a casual addition to their canon of rousing numbers such as 2008s ‘Frankie’s Gun’.
The obvious comparisons with the Felice Brothers have always been The Band and Bob Dylan and here they live up to those reference points but they also widen their oeuvre with songs like the softer and sweeter ‘All When We Were Young’ and the beer swigging shanty ‘Memphis Flu’ that sways like The Pogues touring the saloons of the wild west. Elsewhere they tighten the historical bond with The Band on ‘Boy From Lawrence County’ with its guitar and banjo interplay.
The songs that convince the most on Yonder Is The Clock are the quieter moments where The Felice Brothers are masters at pacing their playing and spacing the emotion to build tension on the heart tugs. They increase the nostalgic weight of the words with the characters, places and winding dusty roads that connect them.
This album sees them stepping back and taking stock of America, taking in the view and releasing the stories that evolved from their touring and experiences. One hopes that they will take a wider and perhaps bolder approach next time round but until then they have again delivered a solid and at times beautiful collection of traditional American songs.