You wouldn't know, listening to the Felice Brothers' latest LP, Favorite Waitress, that the record marks the first time they've recorded in a proper studio, abandoning the chicken coops and high-school auditoriums of their previous albums. Characteristically unhinged and scruffy without ever feeling unprofessional, the record has the warmth and approachability that scores of other "roots rockers" struggle to project. When Ian Felice's voice breaks into the slightest laugh as he sings, "In this violent world that spins, I've been so afraid to live by the lights of comets," there's something unfakeable that elevates the song beyond the efforts of his peers.
By Derek Askey
The band will bring that new album to Denver this Friday with a show at the Bluebird. Those already familiar with the Felice Brothers will find no curveballs on Favorite Waitress, unlike on its criminally underrated predecessor, Celebration, Florida. Instead, the band now appears focused on what's drawn their fans in the first place: songs that sound great live but can bear the closer attention of an album listen. "Going to a professional-grade studio was a way for us to focus solely on performing the songs and getting them down on tape," says James Felice, the band's affable accordion player and de facto representative. The problems of tumbledown recording spaces (it'd be a stretch to call them "studios") were absent this time around. "We're much closer with Favorite Waitress than we've ever come before," he says. "The way that the record feels is similar to way the live show is."
One of the rewards of that closer attention surely comes down to what the Felice Brothers are singing about. Ian's lyrics are routinely arresting, stuffed with obscure proper nouns and beautiful turns of phrase; they're frequently funny and way better than you might imagine coming from a country-ish band known for whipping its audience into a whiskey-soaked fervor. "It all comes from Ian," James explains, "who writes most of the songs, including, I'd say, our best ones. The lyrics are something that's important to him -- that they're compelling, that the stories are interesting, that there's a narrative. He sets the standard for the rest of us."
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Much of the band's success can be attributed to its workmanlike demeanor, with hundreds of shows and five proper albums across their ten years together, progressing from busking at New York City subway stations to playing festivals like Bonnaroo. When asked about how the group comes across as working-class, James said, "We are working-class. We work for a living. All the money I've ever made is from this band. We grew up in lower-middle-class households -- all of us, actually -- and I've never had anything nice. My father's a carpenter -- 64 and still working six or seven days a week -- and I think we get our work ethic from him."
That trait is increasingly rare, and it's one of the many things that sets the Felices apart. Asked if he could see himself plying his trade the way his father has, well into his later years, James says, "I think that's the key to longevity and to happiness -- to work."