Undress is a charming, thoughtful and consistent album.
Recorded mostly live in upstate New York, Undress has plenty moments of exuberance and optimism, but is a lingering darkness reflecting the uncertainty of its social and political moment is equally pervasive on the album.
Indeed, it is the moments in which the Felice Brothers embrace the darkness that are the most affecting and memorable. They have always excelled at something we might broadly call “Americana,” but have distinguished themselves among the many other bands of similar persuasion not only due to their relatively higher degree of musical eclecticism, but also and more importantly for their way with words.
Consider the stand-out track “Poor Blind Birds,” a country-inflected lament delivered with a spoken-sung bite that you could imagine someone like Lou Reed or Nick Cave delivering with gusto. It is a song about a universal, common sentiment—a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the world’s complexity—but it is expressed with a delicacy and earnestness that sustain multiple listens. Simple verses like, “Since you’ve been dead these seven years/ I’ve seen you twice in a glass of red brandy and ice/ As the sky filled with golden spears/ And hung a wreath in the house of grief,” are effective in joining together archetypal motifs (drinking away your sorrows) with abstract elements and an almost mythic weight.
Something similar takes place in “Holy Weight Champ,” another of the album’s strongest songs, one in which the cryptic intent stokes the listener’s imagination and lures her into the song’s world, a kind of surreal, Wim Wenders road movie anchored around a hazy but compelling protagonist.
Likewise, the Dylanesque succession of images in a song like “Days of the Years” transports the tune from what might risk being more cliched territory into something more expansive and disarming, forcing the listener to ask whether the vignettes being conjured are really as straightforward as she might at first listen have assumed. And though the closing, piano-led song “Socrates” might seem a bit forced in wanting to draw a parallel between the philosopher’s prosecution and demise and the plight of contemporary songwriters, it is clear the sentiment is sincere and, by the end of the song, we are convinced the stand taken by the singer—and the stakes for which the stand is taken—are well worth memorializing.
There are a few less successful moments, such as the raucous but lightweight “Salvation Army Girl,” in which it is supremely unclear (but not in a good way) what we’re supposed to make of, or feel toward, its titular figure. But elsewhere, humor and poignancy lie side-by-side to great effect, as on the opening title track, a call for everyone—even and especially political opponents—to find common ground in a kind of innocent, blissful hedonism.
Undress is a charming, thoughtful and consistent album, part and parcel of the Felice Brothers’ ongoing effort to make unabashedly “American” music while offering loving skepticism toward American-ness itself.