Featured Album: “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by The Duke and The King
WHO: Simone Felice breaks free of his fellow Felice Brothers, teams up with fellow Catskills musician Robert “Chicken” Burke, takes name from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, makes one of the year’s finest albums.
WHAT: Recorded this especially cold past winter in my neck of the woods (and, literally, I mean the woods), the resultingly warm and inviting Nothing Gold Can Stay suggests that far from being your typical frustrated drummer, Simone Felice is the true singing and songwriting talent in his family. With a quivering voice soft as James Taylor (or my own good friend, Chris Harford), and yet a lyrical bent that digs deep into the poverty-stricken underbelly of modern America(na), Felice dominates this musical partnership. A handful of songs are nothing short of the most stirring American ballads in recent years.
WHY: Late last year, expecting his first child with his partner, older Felice Brother Simone “had a talk with the boys (his brothers) about wanting to make some changes in my life… We’d been hitting it really hard for three years.” When the baby was lost, Simone made those changes permanent, quitting the increasingly successful group to follow his musical muse. Burke, his close friend for ten years and a popular journeyman with George Clinton, Sweet Honey In The Rock and others, was a natural new partner. Noel Haskins, a member of the original Parliament/Funkadelic, adds gospel vocals (and instruments) to album and live shows alike; Freddy Cash joins them onstage on bass. On the opening night of their short American tour, at Woodstock’s Colony Café on August 1, the Duke and the King revealed itself as an inherently more professional project than the delightful onstage shambles that is the Felice Brothers, but one still allowing for rough edges and informality, with the members regularly swapping instruments and cracking jokes. When Simone’s brothers Ian and James joined them for an encore of Felice Brothers songs, it was an emotional endorsement for their elder sibling’s spreading wings.
WINNERS: There seems to be little doubt among those who’ve heard them: the funereally slow, purposefully sparse “Union Street” and “One More American Song” (separated by several tracks but clearly of a pair) are as mystically beautiful as they are painfully sad, the former with a stirring chorus, the latter constructed in folk fashion, with the title concluding each lengthy verse. When you hear songs of such depth, you instinctively know that the American songwriting/storytelling tradition is alive and well, if often mired in anguish. But there are other fine numbers too: opener “If You Ever Get Famous,” the bright acoustic (mandolin?) accompaniment to “Summer Morning Rain,” and “Lose My Self,” a repeated chorus that may or may not be about the pain of losing a baby.
WORDS: Felice, the published author of three works of fiction, has no difficulty bringing his story-telling abilities to lyrical verse. On “Union Street,” he hearkens back to a childhood raised on MTV, when “everything was easy,” but then gives that word a bleak new relevance. “You were the prettiest girl in town/but your ma was a druggie, she kicked you around/and everyone knew the word on the street/knew she was easy, so easy, your ma was easy.” As with the reference on “One More American Song” to John, “a quiet boy in school,” who “went in the army, like a lot of them do, and he got fucked up there,” it sends a shiver down the spine every time I hear it. By comparison, the line on “Summer Morning Rain” that “Some are born to love, some are born to carry a Tommy Gun” seems almost optimistic.
WHINE: It seems cruel to observe of a man who brought out the best in Simone Felice, but Warren’s vocal contributions, “Suzanne,” “Still Remember Love” and “I’ve Been Bad” pale by comparison. Their inclusion brings Simone’s own songs down to barely 25 minutes; I love that albums are getting shorter again, but in this particular case, less could have been more.
WEB: Simone’s a country boy who heats his house with a wood stove, Robert’s studio is apparently just a log cabin similarly warmed; the pair are named for Huck Finn’s roving pair of charlatans. Can you imagine them bothering much with Twitter or Facebook? If you’re lucky, their MySpace page will play a couple of songs for you; if you’re unlucky, it won’t and you’ll need make do with YouTube vids of them in cabin fever mode instead. Either way, this is an analogue adventure.
WINE? With the Felice Brothers, it’s always about whisky and moonshine. Nothing Gold Can Stay is softer, however, and Simone likes his red wine; given his penchant for the simple life, he will hopefully agree that local “Hudson Heritage” wines comprised of hardy hybrids, whose roots can survive our brutal local winters, will make a good pairing with a soft, warm album recorded under two foot of snow. Adair Vineyards, a champion of hybrids, is especially proud of its “2008 Landmark Red – a light, dry red made from a blend of Frontenac, Millot, and Foch grapes aged in oak barrels for 4 months.” Benmarl Winery, which claims to own the oldest vineyard in America (dating back to 1788) wants you to know that its Estate Baco Noir – “A light to medium bodied wine with the classic peppery red cherry fruit that only Baco can offer” – routinely wins awards. It’s priced accordingly, at close to $28. Then again, they’ve been turning it out for 50 years now. That’s tradition for you.