Echolocation #18: Bang, Bang, Bang…Repeat

nostalgia twice-removed makes something new? the felice brothers, “frankie’s gun.”

The Felice Brothers.

The Felice Brothers make music of twice-removed nostalgia, sounding like The Band of the 1970s singing about the vanishing America of the 1920s and 30s.

The group channels the best of The Band at every turn: the accordion flourish that starts “Frankie’s Gun”; the thudding drum sound; Ian Felice’s Dankoesque herky-jerky vocal stylings; the wondrous harmony singing; the barroom chug, somewhere between a lilt and a stomp. The group is even from the Catskills, for godsakes! It’s as if the Felice Brothers just wandered out of a Big Pink Basement Tapes session.

But don’t let the obvious comparisons fool you. Nostalgia twice-displaced is, in its way, something brand new.

Sounding something like The Band on Cahoots, the 1971 album that most found Robbie Robertson getting his Martin Scorsese retro-cinema stylings on, “Frankie’s Gun” is the story of a gangster accidentally shot by his buddy’s bullets after making a pickup in Chicago (“I could have sworn the box said Hollywood blanks”). One thinks of the budding buddy-movie relationship between Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) on the new HBO retro-gangster series Boardwalk Empire (see upcoming CR post)—though the Felice Brothers song preceded that show.

There’s a kind of absurdist joy in “Frankie’s Gun,” punctuated by Ian Felice’s final yodel to end the track. The song celebrates stupidity and violence coupled together in the service of a simultaneous loyalty to traditional family ties (“I saw a man hit my mom one time, really / I hurt him so damn bad I had to hide in Jersey”) and a shout of individual liberation from the constraints of society. Gangsta roots-rock.

It’s easy, of course, to compare the Felice Brothers to The Band, but this masks something else about the similarities between the groups. Like the best songs written by The Band, “Frankie’s Gun” is an extraordinary work of storytelling in song-lyric form. It is literary without wearing its sophistication on its sleeve. In fact, the sophistication is to be found precisely in the group’s hellbent pursuit of a rickety kind of road-worn beauty.

There’s great songwriting here, as on many compositions by the Felice Brothers. “Frankie’s Gun” is chock full of strange details that thicken the story. To wit: “I think I know the bloody way by now, Frankie / Turn the goddamn radio down, thank you / Pull over / Count the money / but don’t count the thirty in the glove box, buddy / That’s for to buy Lucille some clothes.” Or: “Work zones / Double fines / Don’t pass the double lines / Trail of McDonald’s, rest stop, trailer double wide.” Or: “Slip make a fender shine / Frankie you’re a friend of mine / Got me off a bender after long legged Brenda died.”

A kind of short-story quality develops in the tale of “Frankie’s Gun”: think modernist noir in the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett mode.

And something else happens too. Full of Basement Tapes-worthy characters such as gangsters, prostitutes, washed-up boxers, and other misfits from some black-and-white movie screen or 1920s Paramount Records blues recording (themselves often nostalgia tracks already, recapitulating previous lost histories of America), the songs of the Felice Brothers keep leaping into the present. Stories become allegorical, half remote details and figures of speech from the past, and half contemporary references.

A gangster whose “car goes / Chicago / for to pick up some cargo” could be a character from some old picture show, or, in the blink of an eye, a protagonist from Cahoots, or, blink once more, a figure in a Scorsese film from the 70s, or, blink one last time, a band on a hardscrabble tour from one joint to the next, like the Felice Brothers following The Band following the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels down some lost highway that you want to follow even though you feel like you’ve been there before.


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