The Felice Brothers are renowned for their ramshackle update on the kind of sounds The Band were making in the early seventies, recording in chicken coops and barns, a rough and ready bunch indeed. This reputation however has at times obscured how good a band they are and in particular, what a great writer Ian Felice is. Now he’s taken a leaf from his brother, Simone’s, book and delivered a solo album. Unlike Simone who left the band to forge a solo career, In The Kingdom Of Dreams appears to be a side project for Ian; he has the band play on the album and brother Simone returns on production duties. In comparison to The Felice Brothers the album is sparse and reflective, Ian’s voice tethering it to the Felice’s but it’s ultimately a more personal project, a result, says Felice, of basing the songs on, “Memories of my past…the pull between reality and unreality and also how time affects memory.” And while some of the songs are pulled from memories of growing up (In Memoriam recalls the death of his stepfather) others reflect his anxieties on becoming a father while there are some observations on the current state of America.
Aside from a brief convulsion on Road To America with its percussive drive, the album is a spare affair, Felice’s acoustic guitar and keyboards the main instruments. The opening title song sets the scene with a bizarre assemblage of arresting images (At the moonscape hotel the walls feel like hell and I don’t feel well/ I don’t like the moon when it’s a blood red balloon/ in this kingdom of dreams) which have an almost nightmarish quality about them. Like Eef Barzaly, Felice conjures up a surrealist dreamscape, a labyrinth that leads to one’s deepest fears. Will I Ever Reach Laredo is, on the face of it, more straightforward. A traveller, again under a “strangely tinted moon” yearns to get to his destination but is seemingly unable to move on; instead he ponders the possible hues of the moon while glimpsing the glimmering light of a distant city he has to pass by. This stasis is again a dreamlike evocation, a Borgesian fable with no end in sight and the subtle throbbing guitar motif reinforces this sense of an endless cycle, an oroburus. 21st Century is an absurdist take on the current state of the nation in the States with Felice imagining an alien invasion while playing banjo as if he were on a 19th Century plantation as something like a Theremin hovers ominously. He returns to this topic on the animated Road To America which is stuffed full of plastic American icons such as Disney’s cartoon characters and, “politicians and businessmen placing bids/high as the pyramids,” a Dylan like word poem which contrasts the plastic dream with the realities of the Okies featured in The Grapes Of Wrath.
Amidst this fractured viewpoint Felice hones in on reality with Water Street almost like a diary entry as he sings of his wife and child and his daily chores while In Memoriam conjures up an idyllic past peppered with old ideals (I was walking down the tracks where the communist bees relax …). This mundane reality, his mother watching daytime TV as his step dad collapses and dies is given a delicious gossamer thin fragility in the playing as Felice invokes feelings of loss, personal and universal. Elsewhere, Felice delivers a brace of songs that are bittersweet indeed, fragile ballads that totter on the edge but always pull through. Signs Of Spring is an achingly beautiful love ballad while Mt. Despair is a beguiling threnody that recalls both the work of Tom Rapp from Pearls Before Swine and the stark narratives of Willie Vlautin. Ten To One again recalls the oddness and alt folk leanings of Pearls Before Swine; a mutant folk song of sorts. The closing song, In The Final Reckoning, has a Leonard Cohen like combination of biblical imagery and bloody knives with Felice in full command of his narrative.
In The Kingdom Of Dreams is one of those records which are idiosyncratic and beguiling. A cult album in the making perhaps but you can get ahead of the future queue by getting it now.