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Artist: Fire on Fire

Album: Fire on Fire

Label: Young God

Review date: Jan. 7, 2008


Fire on Fire - "Hangman" (Fire on Fire)


Over the years, Young God's Michael Gira has unearthed a succession of really interesting young artists and bands – Calla, Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family and Mi and L’au so far – and helped them, in almost every case, to record the best work of their respective careers. Banhart, for all his media accolades, has not topped Rejoicing in the Hands; Akron/Family will have a tough time outdoing their split with Angels of Light; Calla's landmark remains Televised. As for Mi and L'au, well, who knows if they will ever follow up on their self-titled debut? Living in a log cabin with a fashion model-type significant other is surely a bit distracting.

In any case, when Gira announces that he's found a new band, it's a good idea to take notice. His latest discovery is Fire on Fire.

Fire on Fire doesn't quite start with a blank slate. The band's core was mostly together in Cerberus Shoal, a Maine new folk outfit, whose celebratory, otherworldly shows mixed old-time purity with curiously theatrical performance art. During their nine-album, decade-long run, they toured a good deal with fellow Mainer Micah Blue Smalldone, a guitarist and banjo player with two exquisite acoustic folk solo records. They are all members of a Maine-based outré Americana enclave, fond of twisting the sounds of unamplified instruments like banjo, string bass and found percussion in surreal non-traditional ways. (Death Vessel's Joel Thibodeaux also came out of this scene.)

Fire on Fire's first recording, a self-titled EP, is a tantalizing glimpse of the new band's possibilities, five distinctly different songs united mostly by instrumentation and a weirdly offbeat kind of rural sincerity. The opening track, "Hangman," is the one they're focusing on (hence the mp3 above), yet in some ways the least interesting. It's trebly and trembly, all glistening vibrato on high guitar strings and an insanely communal, octave leaping, all-hands chorus. There's some sort of epiglottal thing going on in the singing, a vibration that sounds like everyone's furiously rubbing their adam's apple on the sustained notes. The words are skewed and full of new hippy dark optimism, all about everybody needing friends, because "even the worst of men, even the hangman has friends." Just listening is like slipping into the clutches of some sort of cult; start to sing along and you're lost.

And yet, "Hangman" is not the best of these five songs. For that honor, I'd vote for the slow, liquidly beautiful "Liberty Unknown." It's based in slow 12/8, a three-based guitar motif twinkling in the background, as singer Colleen Kinsella stretches out the long pure notes of the melody. There's a wild thread of piping that runs through the song, not quite a flute, maybe a recorder that gives it an especially untamed heft. It might even be a political song, touching obliquely on the need for consciousness and protest in lyrics like "We fought with our lungs, we fought with our lungs," intoned over and over again in a dream-like background. It's a gorgeous song and not really alt.country or alt.folk at all.

"My Lady Coffin" and "Amnesia" stick closer to the pre-industrial America formula, the first plucked out on guitar and eased by strings, the second rollicking along on accordion blurts and junk percussion. Yet even when the music passes, almost, for Folkways traditional, the words are skewed like funhouse mirrors. "My Lady Coffin" is full of natural images, sung in wavery, antique harmonies, and yet so far warped from any expected folk song sentiment as to be almost disconcerting. Consider the stanza about aging, family and the circle of life: "The kids are crazy/They're always cryin'/The parents continue multiplying/Digging dirt and laying their seed/Oh it's so much fun to breed." Not exactly shoring up our nation's traditional values, are they?

The EP closes with its longest cut, the eerily laid-back "Three or More." The song takes its time getting going, banjo, guitar and slide bending their notes into a serene interlocked pattern, bobbing along. It's almost a minute before the vocals come in, two before the song resolves into any sort of chorus. Yet far from growing tedious, the groove becomes reassuring and comfortable. You can feel the band members relax into one another's playing, feeling it, in no rush to bring things to climax. And maybe this – more than their non-electrified instruments, their country harmonies, their birds and trees imagery – is what this band has in common with traditional folk. They have all the time in the world to bring this song off. Why hurry?

By Jennifer Kelly

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