Some artists can tell great stories, but Simone Felice is the master. “Billy Sinclair with the willowy hair, Breaks into Trinity Church on a dare, Where the pastor hides a camera, To capture the rapture, The day that it comes”. But something has changed. On his self-titled solo album six years ago, the tales were told to their often bitter end. Now, though, they tend to take an elliptical turn, leaving you alone with just your imagination for company. “Billy gets afraid and he runs, Don’t look in the back room until you get older, Let the projector run over and over, Over and over”. It’s every bit as compelling as before. But scarier. To help keep him safe, Simone Felice is accompanied here by Four Tet and Natasha Khan, whose own album he recently produced. Their presence fleshes out the strum of the guitar. The plaintiveness of the voice. And adds to the density of the story. Whether it’s a serious song about human trafficking. “You know all the orphan girls in those desert towns, Change their old names to Crystal and Destiny, There’s a man they call ‘The Prince’ and they pass his number around, Says he can get them on an airplane to Kennedy”. Or an equally serious song about everyday life. “Fix the lights, Fix the fridge, Fix the faucet, Fix the kids, Fix my worries, Fix my brain, Hang me out like a scarecrow, In the wind and the rain”. Whatever the subject, Simone Felice is the master story teller. And The Projector is a wonderful collection.
Simone Felice is in a good place. In 2010 he nearly died. Emergency heart surgery saved his life. Still recovering, his first post-op album had a distinctly dystopian side to it. There was theft, murder, more murder and, most nightmarish of all, a song about eloping with Courtney Love. Fully recovered, he’s back. And how. Whereas his previous outing was often a pretty sparse affair, his new album is a fully realised creation. There’s a band, including friends and relatives. ‘Molly-O!’ sets things off in lively fashion. And ‘Gettysburg’ fairly clips along, making it more like the address than the battle. ‘If You Go To LA’ is a classic Simone Felice song, reminiscent of ‘If You Ever Get Famous’. And ‘Heartland’ is perhaps the stand-out track. It’s so familiar, it sounds like it should be a cover of a much-loved 70s song. Yet it’s a Simone Felice original. But utopia comes at a price. Before, a major part of the attraction was hearing about the antics of Bobby Ray, Hetti Blackbird, and a cast of often disreputable, if not downright dangerous characters. But, here, they’re largely absent. ‘Our Lady Of The Gun’ continues some of the Second Amendment themes of its self-titled predecessor and ending the album with a song called ‘The Gallows’ is a sign that there can be trouble in paradise. For the most part, though, this is, whisper it, an almost happy-sounding album. Is it the worse for that? Absolutely not. But there’s a different vibe for sure. In an interview, Simone Felice recounts that you can actually hear the ticking of his automatic heart valve on at least one of the songs on the album. It’s a life-affirming sound. And that’s the vibe that dominates Simone Felice’s new album.
Here are my 11th-15th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:
The best way to enjoy Jack White’s album was to forget what it was about. Was it about Meg? Was it about Karen? Was it about both? Did she – whoever it was – really do those things to him? Did he ever really say those things to her? Who knows? Who cares? In Jack’s head it’s probably about all of these things, none of them, and many others as well. Like the impenetrable cover, which must mean something but who knows what, the trick was to sit back and listen to the song craft. There’s great playing, great tunes, great drama. It’s more enjoyable than most White Stripes albums.
Ah, this was the album with the lyric: “And I tried to write, The Saddest Song In The World”. Well, good news, Dr Crowley, you’ve won first prize. Sure, I have a soft spot for the miserabilists, a penchant for the self-pityers, an attraction to the artists of anomie, but Adrian Crowley can out do them all. He makes Leonard Cohen seem virtually jolly. But it’s not all melancholy madness. “I see three birds flying”, he sings, “One will steal your rings and, One will make you sing, And one will lead you home”. Full of wonderful imagery and poetic lyrics. This is a fine album.
A great thing about most of Jim White’s songs is that when they get going they often move along at a decent pace. There’s usually a good rhythm underpinning the subtle orchestration. And when he does slow it right down, then there’s always something going on in the music. Some sound. Some texture. All of which means that the songs never get boring. Plus, there’s a real sense of the south. Of chairs swinging on the porch. Of someone who’s been through quite a bit and wants to reflect on it. And, for once, not in a way that’s achingly sad, but with the sense that, hmm, that was really something.
This was the latest of a string of fine albums by Damien Jurado over the last few years. He’s never going to make the big time. He’s never going to sell out big theatres. Commercially, probably the best he can hope for is to get a song played on an episode of a top US TV programme. But this doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s a wonderful songwriter. On this album, he added just a touch of psychedelia on a couple of the tracks and it sounded really good. That’s right. Just a touch. Richard Hawley please take note.
Simone Felice told some of the best stories of the year. Some of them were even true. Homicidal Native Americans. Perverts from Jersey. Michael Jackson. Characters you’d cross the road to avoid. Simone Felice brought these and host of others to life in gentle-sounding songs, but ones with a hint of menace nonetheless. His retelling of the story of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate is particularly chilling. But it’s when he dreams of taking a chance and running away with Courtney Love that the shivers really kick in.
As part of The Felice Brothers, Simone inhabits the shadier part of town. Not quite the wrong side of the tracks, but close by. Guns are either present or not very far away. Simone and his brothers, Ian and James, get into situations their mother probably warned them against. There’s usually drama in the songs. It makes for interesting listening. Recording as The Duke and The King, Simone Felice is in a much more benign place. Topanga Canyon circa 1975. At home with bands such as Dawes, Maplewood, and the arch-revivalist, the magnificent Jonathan Wilson, the mood is laid back. Hazy. With a slightly acrid smell in the air. His mother probably warned him against plenty of things that are going on there as well, but, on balance, she’d probably be happier he’s there and not in the other place. Now, Simone Felice has released his first self-titled project. The sounds don’t stray too far from the canyons, but the cast of characters suggests that he’s been hooking up again with his brothers. On ‘New York Times’ he sings about a 35-year old from New Jersey who “with a thirty-thirty, found them girls rehearsing in a ballet school, And when he bust in and point his musket he turned the lilly white muslin into bright red bloom”. Other characters include Bobby Ray, a rapist; Dawn Brady and her son who, guess what, has a gun and you know he’s gonna use it; Hetti Blackbird, an Indian from South Dakota who steals a gold Range Rover; Sharon Tate and Charlie Manson, and we know what happens there; and, most frighteningly of all, Courtney Love. Simone imagines himself in a relationship with the lonely Ms Love. ‘Take a chance and come away with me’, he sings. ‘I’ll work construction’. Suffice to say, there’s no sign of a happy ending. Mr Felice, it’s your mother on the phone again.