The Felice Brothers Go Electric on 'Celebration, Florida'
But with "Celebration, Florida," due May 10 on Fat Possum Records, the Palenville, N.Y., band set out to blow past those comparisons right into outer space; the album is a dark, echoing set of synthesizer and drum-machine dirges, complete with funereal horns, chopped-up samples and a children's choir.
Those descriptions may well put the band's die-hard folkie fans in mourning. But, accordionist James Felice says, "You can't equate an acoustic guitar to honesty. It's the intention -- this music is as real and honest as anything we've ever done."
The Felice Brothers -- who also include singer/guitarist Ian Felice, fiddler Greg Farley, drummer David Turbeville and bassist Christmas Clapton -- first gained traction in folk circles in 2007. "Frankie's Gun" was gaining radio spins. The band's raucous, drunken shows kept growing, and barroom anthems like "Whiskey in My Whiskey" didn't hurt. The band's 2009 album, "Yonder is the Clock," crystallized the act's sound: dusty, straightforward roots rock.
Video: "Frankie's Gun," The Felice Brothers
But the group was restless. "Our last few records sound very similar to each other; we needed to try something new," Felice says.
Building a studio in an abandoned upstate New York high school, the band began sculpting songs "in tandem with [programmed] beats."
"At the beginning, we really went off the deep end," Felice says. "But the songs didn't touch us. We still want people to connect."
The eventual finished batch of 11 songs fuses the band's thirst for experimentation with the familiar grit and emotion of the Felices' musical past. Lead single "Ponzi" finds Ian Felice's sandpaper croak crawling through a lacerating synthesizer line; on "Best I Ever Had," he's backed by only acoustic guitar and chirping crickets. But the sinister opener, "Fire at the Pageant," needed something different. Something innocent.
"There was a birthday party going on one day in the high school's old cafeteria, so we invited them up to the studio. We have 15 kids singing on that song," James Felice says. Written about a dead father who's returned to town, the track's anchored by children screaming, "Calm down! Calm down!"
"The idea was to make it fucked up and scary," Felice adds.
Fat Possum owner Matthew Johnson is "hoping the band can connect the dots" with "Celebration, Florida," because "they've already done a lot of grunt work." But he's not blindly optimistic. "They definitely took some risks on this album. Usually, in this business, you're not rewarded for taking risks, but when you are, you're really rewarded."
Some rewards, however small, have already come in. Of the band's new label, Felice says, "[Johnson] brought us $100 worth of Popeye's chicken, and we signed with him." And whether or not "Celebration, Florida" proves polarizing or brings payoff, the Felice Brothers still make drinking music.
"Whiskey goes best with our previous records. This might be more of a tequila record," Felice says. But, of course, "nothing too fancy."