Frankie’s Gun (2008)

The Felice Brothers

Written by The Felice Brothers
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Frankies gun mainIf you want to do a stomping, beer-swilling square dance with the grim reaper, dial up this inexorably evocative song by the New York-based Felice Brothers. Country and Folk music seem to periodically leave the Northeast behind but, as it did in the mid- to late-1960s, it comes roaring back most often out of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. (This is not to give short shrift to other places like New England or Pennsylvania.)

They get down the cold, honest clarity of the thousand creeks and rivers that water the Empire State. They’ve got the snow and the leaves turning. They’ve got the sullen winter and the dreamlike summers. They’ve got the nameless something extra that drew Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, Joplin and even Jimi Hendrix to the Catskills, not to mention dozens and dozens of other luminaries of Rock, Folk and a certain brand of Country music.

He shot me down…

The Felice Brothers’ hometown, Palenville, NY, boasts a long, impressive artistic history. It was base-camp for the core of the Hudson River School of painting, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Winslow Homer among them. The Catskill Mountain House and its satellites are considered the first “art colony” in America.

Palenville is also the setting for Washington Irving’s timeless tale Rip Van Winkle.

Frankies gun backyardDown from the mellow old mountains came these sons of a carpenter, landed in a shoebox apartment in Brooklyn and started to ply their rough-hewn trade on subway platforms, street corners and parks. In a world where everyone seems to be either in search of the 3D-printer plastic song or the sublimely authentic, The Felice Brothers deliver something that is supra-authentic.

Add to all that this: the Felices have a biting sensibility lyrically. Their music – purposely unpolished? – unadorned, heavy on rhythm, accordion and piano harking back to days when drovers along the valley herded cattle, sheep, goats, and yes, geese and ducks down to the big city to the south.

My car goes Chicago
Every weekend to pick up some cargo
I think I know the bloody way by now, Frankie
And turn the god damn radio down, (thank you)
Pull over. Count the money
But don’t count the thirty in the glove box buddy
That’s for to buy Lucille some clothes

Frankies gun album coverBang bang bang went Frankie’s gun
He shot me down Lucille
He shot me down 

“Frankie’s Gun” has the same cornbread-sticks-in-the-oven texture as a number of Band songs. “Daniel And The Sacred Heart,” “Don’t Do It,” and of course, “The Weight” come to mind. This is not to say that The Felice Brothers operate on the same plane as The Band, but that is like castigating a playwright for not being Shakespeare.

The storyline of “Frankie’s Gun” is slightly off although eventually resolves itself. Some observers contend it’s about old-time gangsters Al Capone and henchman Frank Nitti, but it hardly seems likely given the contemporary references.

Work zones double fines
Don’t pass the double lines
Trailer McDonald’s rest stop trailer double wide
I saw a man hit my mom one time, really
I hurt him so damn bad I had to hide in Jersey

The group displays a wonderfully wry sense of humor. It is punctuated and showcased by a swaggering rhythm and what amounts to a beer-hall chorus tailor-made for a loud, off-key, drunken singalong.

But there is nevertheless something dark and gloomy. There is an accident – a stupid accident – involving a box of blank cartridges that turn out not to be anything of the sort.

I thought we might be on a roll this time Frankie
I could have swore the box said Hollywood blanks…

Well, maybe it was an accident. Maybe not. The tinier the pie, the more rabid the fight over each piece.

Frankies Gun Kaaterskill CloveThe singer and Frankie had made a little score in Chicago, but it seems things went down different than the singer thought. The 30 bucks in the glovebox?

Seems like the motive in a murder involving two small-timers.

“Frankie’s Gun” exists in the strange, “other America” that we all keep thinking has passed. But it persists in corners of cities, on flat-farm landscapes, and apparently right on the banks of Kaaterskill Creek as it cuts through the mountains at “The Clove” (at left).

Ahhh, the secrets hiding in songs.

  • There are a number of attractive facets to the collective character of The Felice Brothers. The best of these is an unerring honesty. While the characters and the events in their songs have been transformed into art, it is clear the ideas are based on real people and real experiences.