It is fair to say that over the years, troubadour Simone Felice, who hails from Palenville in the Catskill Mountains, encountered his share of drama. Some of these experiences, as well as current reflections and observations, make for the brilliance of his new album Strangers.

Recorded in the Catskills with guest artists The Felice Brothers, Leah Siegel, and Wesley Schultz & Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers, the album is a fleshed out affair. It is comprised of ten beautifully crafted songs reflecting Simone’s raw talent for turning poetry into folk-infused roots rock and ballads that stay in your mind long after the last chords have faded.

Having had to battle ill health (suffering a brain aneurysm at twelve, and followed by open heart surgery in 2010), the celebrated songwriter’s life was further darkened when in 2009 he and his long-term partner lost their first child in late-term miscarriage. For heavens sake, he’s only 38! Such tragedy might be enough to make others reach for the bottle or worse, thankfully though Simone channelled all these experiences into sonic gems oozing raw intensity, wry humour, and breathtakingly open emotions.

Opener ‘Molly-O’ is a truly upbeat track infused with a poppy, catchy refrain and has 100% crowd-pleaser potential. It even has cleverly applied horn arrangements; something one doesn’t immediately associate with Simone’s musical output.
‘If You Go To LA’ in contrast is a laid-back number (as laid-back as LA), a sunny love song that concerns itself with whether a certain squeeze slept ok and hasn’t been corrupted by pills and similar evils.

The restrained and low-key opening of ‘Running Through My Head’ (in a duet with Leah Siegel by the sounds of it) gradually builds up into a powerful, chorus-heavy affair complete with organ, strings, and an overall atmosphere you might encounter in a Southern Baptist church.
Leave it to Simone to unleash his acidic tongue on ballads like ‘Our Lady Of The Gun’ – it’s seemingly innocent sounding arrangement juxtaposed with starkly realistic lyrics. Haunting!

One of the most personal and beautiful songs on the album has got to be ‘Bye Bye Palenville’ – not only Simone’s hometown but here a musical conflict about leaving his town behind: “And the day our baby came we gave her a precious name, so everyone would know what a PEARL we found” are lines which speak volumes, and are expressed heartfelt.

‘Gettysburg’, with its banjo interludes, stompy rhythm and chirpy backing chorus, comes across strongly country-hued… though the pleasant tune belies the song’s sardonically dark lyrical content.

In contrast, ‘The Best That Money Can Buy’ is sheer poetry packed in one of the most gorgeous love songs ever: “Couldn’t I buy you a handkerchief woven only of gold, and the colours of dawn / Wear it to the banquet and wave it slowly in the air, when the grown-ups are gone / Fold it to your breast, and let the night do the rest…”
The trumpet solo mid-song is almost not necessary to emphasize the mood, but it doesn’t stop the magic from dripping by the bucket-full either.

On the loungey and sedate ‘Heartland’, the artist longs to find out what it means to bleed for love, while the piano dominated ‘Bastille Day’ once again excels courtesy of a superbly crafted composition, imaginative lyricism and a truly mesmerising vocal delivery (backed by Leah).

The masterpiece, in my opinion, has got to be closing number ‘The Gallows’. Agreed, the imminent execution of a condemned soul doesn’t make for an uplifting theme, but twist here is that it’s as much a song about redemption as it is about death, as seen (or sung, rather) through the mind of the condemned as well as the mind of the executioner. Ok, so it is a tad macabre but when the final words “Yes, I’m on my way” are delivered in an almost uncannily light-hearted way we get the impression that all may well have a double meaning. Hope arises that on the ‘other side’ all will be ok and forgiven. The string arrangement adds to the melancholic feel of the song, aye, someone pass me the hanky!

A truly stunning album and one that deserves to be listened to over and over, for every time new layers and meanings are to be discovered.