A dead man crawls from his grave and strolls back home, terrorizing his widow and inducing panic in a placid town. It’s not exactly the makings of a Disney plot.
But The Felice Brothers beg to differ on “Fire at the Pageant,” the first and best song on Celebration, Florida. The record is named for the $2.5-billion planned community the Disney Corporation built in late ’90s in an eerie attempt to graft its repressive cheer-mongering to actual life. Leave it to The Felice Brothers, who deal in boozy anthems and murder ballads, to sic a zombie on them.
“Fire at the Pageant” is a DeLillo-esque ode to suburban death dread styled as a singsong epigram: “Harlan’s papa wouldn’t stay in the ground/dead and buried and he walked into town/Oh, Lord, what is Ma to do?” Hell breaks loose as a chorus of kids goes all Lord of the Flies on the refrain: “Fire on the mountain!” they yell. “Everybody calm down, please stop shouting!” others shout back. “Rah-rah, call 9-1-1!” “Calm down, calm down, calm down!” And so Celebration turns to chaos. No community can keep out death; The Felice Brothers, with their gothic sensibilities, know this. “Ha-ha, ha-ha, you’re s’posed to be dead, Mr. Harlan!” teases guitarist Ian Felice in a puckish little outro.
The rest of the album is underwhelming by comparison. “Container Ship”—a lonely, seasick affair—douses the fire and sets off a series of arty, expansive, mostly unmemorable songs.
The group’s sound has been likened to The Basement Tapes, the celebrated lo-fi recordings that Bob Dylan and The Band made at a house in the Catskills not too far from where the Felice boys used to play at family barbecues. Their early work seemed to celebrate a kind of punchy, charismatic amateurism that is good precisely because it is not trying too hard to be.
Celebration, Florida is more studio-driven than anything the band has produced to date—and way less fun. “You can’t play the same music your whole life,” James Felice told me in a 2009 interview. Fair enough. But for a group whose charm lies in its rough-hewn energy, too much polish is toxic.
Alas, “Back in the Dancehalls,” with its ’80s space synths and moribund vocals, is not danceable. A pretty ether of organs, theramins, and horns cannot save “Oliver Stone,” a snoozer even by piano-ballad standards. There are up-tempo songs beyond the first one. But these, too, mostly amount to elegant infrastructure with no vital spark.
Thus the irony of “Fire at the Pageant” wears off with each successive track, and Celebration, Florida begins to resemble Celebration, Fla.: ambitious, but intentional to a fault. Upright, but lifeless.