Yonder Is The Clock
Team Love Records, 2009
REVIEW BY: Josh Allen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/16/2011
The label “alternative country” gets thrown around an awful lot these days, almost as much as the word “indie.” The definition is imprecise and perhaps overused, as it should describe music that is rooted in Americana but pushes the envelope in a handful of different directions. The Felice Brothers – a quintet from the Catskills mountains of New York – followed their ’08 self-titled album with Yonder Is The Clock, a mixture of Americana, late-era Bob Dylan, and an abundantly used accordion and horn section that most definitely fits the alt-country definition.
The Felice Brothers seem to most effectively exploit their songwriting abilities in tracks with diverse instrumentation and upbeat, loosely structured rhythms. “Penn Station,” the first of such tracks on Yonder, is a magnificent symphony of folk rock, with rowdy accordions and an array of percussive instruments bouncing off laissez-faire vocal harmonies. It also features another common thread in the album: Ian Felice’s scratchy, screechy vocals crooning curious lyrics (“Oh how sweetly I do sleep on the bathroom tile where the porter sleeps / With a nickel in my hind like the start of Bethlehem.”) The onomatopoetic train sounds and sudden increase in tempo to close out the track is pretty inspired, too.
“Run Chicken Run,” which originally turned my ears to the band, mirror this style, with a free-wheelin’ spirit and prominent accordions and fiddles. Again, imperfect rhythms and harmonies and oddball lyrics create an inscrutably appealing atmosphere. Each chorus is punctuated with the attempted adage, “Chickens don’t get no life after death.” I can’t decide whether that’s genius or nonsense. “Memphis Flu” shares this style as well, despite its bleak account of disease outbreak and mortality.
After listening to Yonder in its entirety, you wonder why they didn’t return to this formula more often. The Felice Brothers stray from this style more often than not, instead opting for slower, more deliberate ballads. The somber “Sailor Song” begins with a Randy Newman-esque slow piano motif before giving way to whispering vocals describing a sailor’s descent into the cold, dead ocean. “Boy From Lawrence County” showcases the band’s emphasis on imagery-heavy lyrics and storytelling, all behind James Felice’s omnipresent accordion. Both interesting listens, but you find yourself pining for more upbeat rhythms of tracks past.
Similarly, other songs like “Cooperstown” and “Ambulance Man” tread slowly and wearily through verse after verse, repeating its musical phrases perhaps one too many times. The album ends on a beautiful tragedy of a song, “Rise And Shine,” with piano accompanying the story of a man reminiscing and bidding farewell to an old dying friend, sighing hopefully, “We won’t be changed, we’ll remain as one / Please rise and shine, old pal of mine / Your day has come.”The Felice Brothers strike an interesting chord with Yonder Is The Clock, at times convincing you that they have the folk-rock energy, smart quirkiness, and off-the-wall instrumentation to earn them must-see status when they tour through your city. But it turns out to be a bit of a tease; that energy is just a little too sparse on this album, leaving you with a listening experience that’s a little emptier than it could’ve been.