In a sense, South Portland, Maine, is the shopping mall of its big sister, Portland. Interestingly enough, it is not an entirely unlikely place for a strange folk-influenced album to grow out of. Time Lag, onetime record label and distributor of such artists as MV & EE, Espers, and Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice, makes its home nearby, and there is a present collective of musicians (Big Blood, Visitations, GHQ) devoted to improvised sets akin to those very artists. Fire on Fire’s debut, a five-song EP on Young God, is a condensed, refined example of the loose folk and bluegrass sound of the Northeast.
Although it contains structured songs rather than improvised sessions, there is still urgency in the singing and instrumentation, which suggests that these tracks are not far removed from the “jam” from which they came. It is this immediacy along with odd instruments and a willingness to record experimentally that keeps Fire on Fire from becoming just another folk — or even freak-folk — act.
After the straightforward, delicate guitar beginning, opener “Hangman” explodes with the repetitive warbling belting of Colleen Kinsella. The remainder of the EP is fairly straightforward but contains touches of strangeness that keep things interesting. More cohesive than the fractured sound of a band such as White Magic, Fire on Fire layers a collection of atypical instruments — the ud, nay, tamborizta, zamponya — together in traditional bluegrass, folk, and almost maritime or chamber-song structures. The sound is both familiar and exotic.
Fire on Fire fits well into the Young God catalog, which once strived to be unidentifiable but has since become easily labeled as neo-folk and even played a major role in identifying what that category is, pretension included. So, too, this album steps out of the bounds of traditional folk and bluegrass, only to be easily identifiable as more modern interpretations. The dirgeful, accordion-driven “Amnesia” sticks out as an example of experimentation that doesn’t quite work. The accordion is not an instrument that should be driving anything other than polka. (And what was the last polka album you bought?)
Like most of Maine, perhaps owing to its vastness, there is a spiritual and mystical quality to Fire on Fire. It is not overdone. Their lyrics are thoughtful, and poetic enough that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Rightly so, the lyrics sometimes dissolve into just another instrument, and their meaning is lost. The strained yowl of Caleb Mulkerin fits well when singing, “Snows on time and the echo of late/ Against our teeth the tongue we scrape.”
Fire on Fire contribute enough to the genre they wish to expand upon to not get lost in the prefixed folky mix. Their songs are products of sincerity, and they sound fresh enough to remain interesting. The experimentation of “Hangman” is an aspect they should expand upon on their full-length — and they should leave the accordion in its case.