Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.
Blooming storms permeate The Felice Brothers' first album in three years. With Undress, the Felice Brothers' folk-rock sound and vision has matured and focused, and the band does its best at making sense of our modern times.
In a statement issued when the album was first announced, lead singer and songwriter Ian Felice said, "Many of the songs on the new album are motivated by a shift from private to public concerns. It isn't hard to find worthwhile things to write about these days, there are a lot of storms blooming on the horizon and a lot of chaos that permeates our lives. The hard part is finding simple and direct ways to address them."
The album leads off with the title song, a referendum on the many ills of modern day America, with references of Kellyanne Conway, the Bank of America, Republicans and Democrats, evangelicals, industrialists and anarchists. "Chain of illusion / Endless conclusions / When will we find the light of day," Felice sings.
In "Special Announcement," Felice sings "I'm saving up my money to be president," promises "more berries on blueberry hill" and "Charlie Parker on a ten dollar bill." While there's a streak of humor in the lyrics, Felice says you "should feel like you're reading the Financial Times in a motel at the edge of reality. You feel very frustrated by the corrupting power of money in politics, and a piano's cloud-like chords are hovering over a terrace."
Produced by Jeremy Backofen, Undress features a four-piece band with founding members Ian and James Felice joined by drummer Will Lawrence and their new bassist Jesske Hume. Throughout, a variety of instruments wonderfully serve the song arrangements. Banjo, accordion, pedal steel, various horns, keyboards, guitars and shuffling rhythms proliferate throughout the album.
"We live in a world we can't understand," sings Felice on "Poor Blind Birds," one of the records' stand-out songs. Influenced by the work of poet William Bronk, the song has a pensive beauty. There's a sense of despair that runs throughout the song as Felice sings "Poor blind birds if we're anything / And the world is not what it seems to poor blind birds."
The epic "Socrates" closes Undress. Inspired by 1950s West Coast poet Jack Spicer, Ian Felice sings about a musician as philosopher with 24 hours to live:
Health to the tyrant
Health to the modern state
When they tie me to the stake
What a great event I'll make
All of the ratings will soar
High as the war
As the song comes to its end, there's a climactic, cacophonous swirl of sound crashing around Felice's voice, ending the crescendo with a soft piano in much the same way Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" ends after that story's street fight. "Socrates" is a fitting closing song for an album that reflects on the various maladies of our society, from crass capitalism and pop culture over-worship to political despair and frustration.