It sounds like a set-up for a comedy sketch: What happens when a bunch of pop-art indie rockers start playing all-acoustic Southern rock? And yet here is Fire on Fire, composed of members from Cerberus Shoal, a band so experimental they defy classification. So what to make of their reincarnation as Fire on Fire, and their first album under that moniker, The Orchard?
To begin with, let's look at the album on its own terms. The songs are freewheeling, jam band-esque cavalcades of banjos, accordions, mandolins and harmonium. There's a rotating roster of singers, including duets and full choral chants. The songs are old-timey, country-style songs infused with a bit of rock and roll and lyrics that are part Robert Frost, part Led Zeppelin.
There are some bands within the current folk revival who aim to have a retro sound to juxtapose against their modern sensibilities. This is not one of them. There is an overwhelming earnestness that comes through the very grooves of this album. It's not a gimmick, it honestly sounds like an album from a band that could have opened for The Band, or Fleetwood Mac or The Grateful Dead.The album was recorded with the full band and a two microphone set-up. Old school. The lyrics are largely obtuse yet poetic. The question is not so much what the avalanche of lyrics on songs like the fantastically titled "Assanine Race" mean, but what do they mean to you?
It's fascinating what a good fit an album like The Orchard is to a group like Cerberus Shoal. The ambling, repetitive nature of folky jam bands coalesces well with the noise fugues and sonic experimentation of the "Myrrh" tryptic off of Cerberus Shoal's Homb. Listen to the way Fire on Fire adds vocal interjections of "shhhh!" and "aaaah!" into the rhythm of the album's final song, "Haystack." It's the kind of found noise that could easily make its way onto any art rock album, yet also works as vocal scatting you would find on an old country rock record.
The lyrics add to this sense of shared territory. The first song on the album, "Sirocco," alternates between yowling vocals sending out a free verse of imagery such as "whistling river in the split of a desert drying" with the rousing chorus of the whole band singing "and if we tear this kingdom down, tear it down, let it be with a deserving and joyous sound!" That contradiction of joy and hope in destruction is as at home in the bohemian Williamsburg lofts as it is in the blues bars of the Mississippi delta.
What Fire on Fire also appears to have a better grasp on than some of their neo-folk counterparts is the fun and silliness that runs through the good old songs they're referencing. Take, for instance, the chorus of "Toknight," yet another full band sing-along that chants, "Who's to blame? You suspected Jesus Christ. Well, he's everyone's favorite scapegoat. Well, we'll all be alone when we sing our final note." The darker, faster "Hartford Blues" provides a charming vocal lead that matches the glories of the choral moments by giving a theatrical, sardonic desperation to lyrics like "I can't say you're not in my mind, kinda something like all of the time."
Although many of the songs are impressively orchestrated and layered with unusual structures and hefty lyrics, the album feels free and easy, at times almost weightless. As the great Steve Martin once said, it's hard to feel sad playing the banjo. It's also a fantastically accessible album. Give it to your niece who loves Devendra Banhart, your aunt who's still listening to the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack or your grandfather who wishes people still made music like those nice Statler Brothers, and there's a good chance they'll all find something there to enjoy.
Perhaps in this era where everyone can put Garage Band on their computer and experiment with a whole host of musical possibilities, what's left for an experimental art-rock group to do except possibly the most daring experiment of all: go back to tradition.