The Felice Brothers make exhaustion feel like an immovable object, but also a ceremonious act that gleams like a gold tooth. I don't know how they do it, but they make it feel as if they're at the bases of the Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore monuments (with the night lights warmly stoked and pointing up at them), pushing, pushing with all their might, treating the works as if they were the sleep they aren't getting enough of. They'll stop for a second, pound a beer and crush the can like an accordion against the national treasure and then try to tackle the little mountain again, thinking that at some point the thing might budge, moving triumphantly north a centimeter or two.
If it doesn't budge (the likeliest circumstance), they've got plenty of songs about what they'll turn to next: revolvers, enough cigarettes to kill a couple dozen packs of mules and more alcohol that you can shake a drunken stick at. The exhaustion that they choose to herald and not necessarily fight all that much - as it's the battle they don't want to win - invades the loose contours of the New York band's bluegrass rock and roll that sounds like Dylan's and The Band's Basement Tapes, just recorded in a different basement, with different pipes overhead, with different footsteps above as well and a more recent take on haps. The epic storytelling that Ian, Simone and James Felice - along with Christmas - spell with their burnt up and smoldering, hangover-y lilt, as if they're writing these fictionalized accounts of someone else's life as they would write their own names in the night's black, with blistering sparklers in hand. Some bands get away with really flimsy basisses for their stories, scratching the surface with some broad stroke that counts as a story, but just barely.
The Felice Brothers completely deliver the beginnings, middles and ends of thought-out dramatizations and hard-knocked people, splattered and weary, but moral and persevering. There are the guys who sleep with a rifle by their bedside, a handgun in the drawer below the lamp and who have a general sense of protecting their family and doing what's right for them and theirs. There are those saving their money - their last few bucks - for a pretty new dress for their little girl - and to take their sweetheart to the picture show. There are the men, who as boys, wouldn't stand for their mother being beaten at the hands of another man, taking it upon themselves to settle it with necessary force, whatever it takes so that momma doesn't get a black eye and another split lip.
"It's really deafening/I'm really on my way to hell," Ian sings on "Marlboro Man" and then tells the dog to get down, almost a hip-hop reference, but it sounds like a gravedigger or an alcoholic author's lament, like something Bukowski or Vonnegut would have said, but never really meant. He hints at Miss America going off with the Marlboro Man and it has the essence of the way that the band would like to see things play out, in an ideal world - the girl seeing the value in being with a guy that is All-American in ways and suicidal and depressed for everyone else in other ways.
There are a million points of light to the music of The Felice Brothers and one of the intriguing ones is their clever way of sandwiching the stories of these penniless dudes and their troubles with such witty intelligence. The men that they live with in their songs are savants - loyal and smart - though they've got so little to show for it. They aren't happy and they aren't unhappy, but they can be both and they probably couldn't live without the two balancing, or the unhappiness actually giving them more satisfaction, as twisted as that might seem. They don't know what love really is, or could be, but they find romantic notions in some of the oddest places - "The Burger King billboard sign reminds me of her mother's eyes" - that it feels as if they could figure it out whenever they damn well pleased. It's always what tears us - when the out is within grasp - but the choice is not to hold it. The exhausted and suffering Felice Brothers know this is where the stimulus comes from.