Michael Gira’s Young God label cornered the market on weird, arty folk some time ago, having introduced Devendra Banhart, The Angels of Light and Akron/Family, among others, each with a unique and paradoxically fresh and classic sound. Each of these bands shares an affinity for the rustic and the surreal, a folk music less concerned with the physical world so much as the supernatural. However, the latest in Young God’s new weird American discoveries isn’t so much a new band as an old one, recontextualized. Fire on Fire, formerly known as Cerberus Shoal, traded in the electric guitars for banjos, mandolins, upright bass and any other varieties of acoustic folk instruments, and holed up in a house in Portland, Maine. As one might surmise from the description, they couldn’t have ended up on any label but Young God.
With the label comes a certain level of quality, and Fire on Fire not only meet but actually surpass many of their contemporaries with their vibrant, haunting Goth-folk compositions. They’ve been described as The Carter Family meets Grizzly Bear, which isn’t too far off the mark. But where Grizzly Bear tends to douse their spacey pop in effects, Fire on Fire leave their instruments bare, sometimes ringing gently in meditative fashion, as on “Flordinese,” or rattling with percussive fury, such as on “Assanine Race.” That Fire on Fire adhere so strictly to the acoustic approach gives the album the feel of being a crisp, progressive folk recording from decades ago, rather than contemporary indie, though “Sirocco” and “Heavy D” do sound a bit like The Decemberists.
One particularly striking quality about The Orchard is the stunning array of vocal harmonies on display, the harmonies themselves being one of the band’s greatest assets. On a track like “Heavy D,” the male/female dynamic is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, as is the interplay on “Hartford Blues,” itself a rollicking banjo hoedown of sorts. And yet the high-pitched female vocals on “Assanine Race” have a significantly more old-timey feel about them, sounding even more like a lost 78 from the archives, or perhaps a feminine version of Sixteen Horsepower. Given that many of the lyrical themes on the album deal in spiritual and mystical realms, the band comes off strongly like a rural, mountain gospel ensemble, each line delivered with an ambiguous sort of conviction.
While the traces of Cerberus Shoal’s prior sound have all but disappear, Fire On Fire still have a bit of cosmic spaciousness about them at times. “Grin” is an open and expansive track, with melodies and vocal harmonies utilizing space innovatively, while the eerie flute intro of “Tsunami” segues into a gorgeous and eerie ballad that maintains a minimal approach and tighter tension than anywhere else on this album. In sound alone, Fire On Fire may appear old-fashioned, but don’t be fooled—this music is advanced.
Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
Sixteen Horsepower – Sackcloth and Ashes
Akron/Family – Akron/Family
MP3: “Hartford Blues”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.