With a widely regarded EP tucked into their belt, Fire on Fire’s first full-length steers the band square into the new roots movement with the confidence of a more established folk collective. Surely the enthusiastic backing of Michael Gira and the similar sounds of alt-folk-gospel label mates Akron/Family helped to ease them into the fold, as the group not long ago was playing progressive art-rock under the name Cerberus Shoal (and were prolific performers to that end).
We’re seeing this a lot these days: more and more bands putting their post-rock heritage on the shelf to take part in the new folk renaissance (take, for instance, Derek Fudesco’s move from art-punk Pretty Girls Make Graves to folky alt-rockers the Cave Singers). With a focus on traditional, old-timey sounds and time-honored instruments, Fire on Fire is next in line, but in this case The Orchard bridges the gap through faithfulness to their unpredictable, chaos-oriented past work.
Recorded in the group’s home (all five members live together in a house in Portland, Maine), The Orchard is a grove of traditional folk (namely string) instruments and the many interpretative ways to play them — and around them. Bluegrass favorites like the mandolin and banjo saddle up to eastern folk fixtures like the oud and tamburitza, and vocalist Colleen Kinsella’s sharp, dissonant harmonies make for interesting — if not disturbing — arrangements. Think Grizzly Bear meets the Carter Family.
“Fight Song” is easy and joyful, a choir-addled piece highlighting Tom Kovacevic’s mellow oud playing and Kinsella’s smooth harmonium. Long playing “Haystack” is a good example of the band’s unself-conscious lyricism, scattered with breathy oohs and aahs, “My mind is dirtless/ My dreams are fruitless/ My bed is loveless,” sings Kinsella of loneliness.
You have to be a little impressed that the band has so easily switched gears from a diet of mostly experimental, amped sounds to a down-home, acoustic style of playing. All five members provide vocals and play a range of instruments, recording “old school” style (like a bluegrass band) with just two mics. While Michael Gira is quick to say that it’s “not in the least folky,” it’s hard not to imagine Grandpa whittling a pipe on a front porch in Appalachia somewhere on “Assanine Race,” or David Grisman tinkering on the mandolin on “Toknight.” The elements of folk music are clearly the building blocks of the record, but the wildly creative moments of The Orchard, like fire itself, allows the group room to play.