Walking out in the Richmond rain after a Felice Brothers concert, I admitted to waxing poetic and said it was like a dose of cosmic understanding and transforming joy. That’s a bit like my feeling after hearing Ian Felice’s new album, In the Kingdom of Dreams. In this instance, though, it’s not the frantic beauty of a Felice Brothers’ concert, but the fragile-feeling tapestry Ian has created in this, his first solo outing.
I don’t use the analogy "tapestry" advisedly. Ian is also a visual artist, which I can see throughout the poet singer/songwriter’s album. In this intricate tapestry, the artist depicts his changing life and fantastical dreams, weaving with words and music.
Seemingly distinct, life and dreams meld for Felice. He finds meaning in the relationships between these two. On the journey of the songs, he discovers beauty crowding each shifting intersection.
“I don’t want to be/hanged from a gold ash tree/and I don’t want to be/at the Xerox machine/in this kingdom of dreams/in this kingdom of dreams … or wander around/this make believe town/in a hospital gown/in this kingdom of dreams/in this kingdom of dreams/…O but if I were king!/all of the bells would ring/hell wouldn’t mean a thing/if I were king” (“IN THE KINGDOM OF DREAMS”)
In Felice's case, a rich, varied talent issues forth via both musical and visual arts expression. There are vivid colors and distinct, unique images throughout Ian’s songs.
at the xerox machine in the kingdom of dreams …
at the moonscape motel, the halls lead to Hell …
the moon when it’s a blood red balloon …
in this kingdom of dreams …
There is also the bittersweet edge of Felice humor knifing through as in the lines above and throughout the lyrics of “21st CENTURY.” While Felice doesn’t say what election he is visualizing, I couldn’t imagine a better characterization of the most recent American dark, presidential charade than this
“the aliens landed on election day/and they stole your mother’s lingerie/I went off my medication/a rider of the revelation/its (sic) an antipsychotic bore (sic)/or its Oprah feeds a minotaur/that’s a hard line to toe/when theres (sic) nowhere to go/on me/the joke is on me/in the 21st century/we were flipping the bird at PHD’s/in jogging shorts and Harvard tees/when the aliens came/like flowers in cellophane/they said your empire is about to fall/you’re just shoppers in an endless mall/and they stole all the pills/in the Hollywood hills/on me/the joke is on me/in the 21st century.”
Narrative also evolves differently here.
The album is crafted carefully in its overall narrative of personal movement forward in time and understanding. To my “reading” of his musical text, Ian is careful in his choices, the placement, where and how each song is nestled into adjoining odes. This narrative is in the shape of a personal journey, one of discovery.
In one instance, he is searching for America.
“in the dream houses of mount despair/cartoon bluebirds fill the air/holograms of Mickey Mouse/Disneys (sic) ghost/carves the Sunday roast/paintings of smoky the bear/and Washington crossing the Delaware/politicians and business men/placing bids/high as the pyramids/this must be the road/this must be the road … this must be the road/that leads to America” (“ROAD TO AMERICA”)
Another direction is the exploration of self and the journey inward toward center and soul.
“she was watching the price is right/or the wheel with Vanna White/wrapped in ephemeral light/with her head in her hands/in a mystery so surreal/no newsman will ever reveal/how destiny spun the wheel/and killed my old man/I was whistling past the grave/the grave of old Tom Paine/when i heard my mother call my name/fly away home/my father was poor as the rain/and his father was poor the same/and I’m poor as a poor Hart Crane/but that’s neither here nor there/and Im (sic) wasted and nearly in tears/with the same old working class fears/pulling coins from the children’s ears/in grief and despair” (“IN MEMORIUM”)
And, he is discovering himself in the wholly-new world of marriage and fatherhood. Stories from the Felice’s own lives are not new in Felice Brothers’ music, in works like “Cooperstown” and “Cus’s Catskill Gym.” But, personal narrative turns a new corner here in the quiet simplicity and directness of “Water Street.”
“i (sic) have a wife and a new born baby/in a new house at the end of water street/it rained all day, i (sic) sat at the kitchen window/drinking coffee and playing solitaire/hedges drink the rain/coffee clogs the drain/the lightning blows/the dreamy catskill (sic) flows/i have a wife and a new born baby/in a new house at the end of water street/my father walked out and just kept walking/in the light of an 80s moon/sometimes I walk the tracks but i always come right back/and feed the cats in the boiler room” (“WATER STREET”)
These passages are indicative of the honesty I find in Ian Felice’s solo expression and the Felice Brothers’ and Simone Felice’s art.
The album is also about love, without saying it in so many words.
There is a darkness in the work overall, surprising in the life of a young man with so many positive things going on in his own life. Perhaps that is how he negotiates it all, by looking at the dark and the light, the combination of factors in his entire life to date and whatever personal complexities exist in this individual, this busker in the universe. But, too, there is often lightness, hope, often emerging, either literally in the lyric content, or embedded in the feeling and sense of meaning the songs evoke.
I said in a review I wrote about that Felice Brothers concert that rainy night in Richmond that, “I found tears in my eyes. Without responding to any song in particular, I realized the tears came from the overall intensity …” While this album has not elicited tears, I feel intensity and find myself in a world of personal meaning, pertinent to my own quests, as I enter the more remote chambers of the Kingdom of Dreams, places so many of my creative friends have now explored and gone beyond.
The choice of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)” for the CD cover is a good one. The indistinct, ghostly rider follows his long white sword as it cuts into the dark path ahead, the dark and light intermingling in a foggy motif, charging, relentlessly charging ahead, and yet with a fluid lyricism in the movement itself.
You can hear synthesizers driving the dream on this record. The arrangements are often ethereal, in keeping with the dreamlike explorations. There is a complexity in keeping with the content. There are emphatic passages, such as a point in one song when cymbals and guitars cross sounds dramatically. I miss the rocking “Whiskey in my Whiskey”-like moments on this album, which maintains a steady, almost pensive rhythmic path. Yet, that may be necessary in order to stay within the musical and textual experience the poet-singer is sharing.
Ian’s voice may be an acquired taste, with its edgy roughness. I’ve liked it from early days, back around the time of “Frankie’s Gun.” It seems appropriate here, in keeping with the honesty, quirky humor, dreamlike-quality, and directness of the album. A unique voice interprets unique songs.
The album is produced by Simone Felice, who also plays drums. Simone does a craftsman-like job in presenting the beauty and singularity of his brother’s solo statement. It’s the first time all three brothers are together on a record since Simone left the band some years ago. A talented team evokes this Kingdom, with James Felice on synthesizer and backing vocals and another original band member, Josh Rawson, AKA Christmas, playing bass. David Baron is on synthesizer and vibraphone. Close to home, recording was done at Sugar Mountain Studios in New York’s “dreamy” Catskills. Uniquely, all the Felice’s continue residence there.