Fire on Fire | The Orchard | Tom Flynn

part campfire sing-along and part séance  

Time flies. It’s been about a year and a half since Fire on Fire signed with Michael Gira’s Young God Records (home of Devendra Banhart, Lisa Germano, Akron/Family, and Gira’s own Swans and Angels of Light projects, among others). Late last year, the label released 5 Song EP, a collection that served as Fire on Fire’s introduction to a national audience. The response was unanimous and enthusiastic praise.

This should come as no surprise to Portlanders. The five musicians who comprise the band — Caleb Mulkerin, Chriss Sutherland, Colleen Kinsella, Tom Kovacevic, and Micah Blue Smaldone — are responsible, collectively and individually, for some of the most original and intriguing music to emerge from Portland in the past 10 years. These folks have a reputation for pouring their hearts into their art, and Fire on Fire’s long-awaited full-length debut is no exception. Capturing the vibe of a Fire on Fire live gig, The Orchard is part campfire sing-along and part séance, 12 songs sung by friends to friends about getting by in this fucked-up world.

The album was initially recorded at the band’s home more than two years ago by Mulkerin, so many of the songs on The Orchard will be familiar to locals who’ve witnessed their shows. But the input of a talent like Gira (who mixed the record with Mulkerin) can’t be understated. The songs have emerged with a clean and well-balanced sound, but with enough rough edges to ensure the music’s authentic, homemade vibe comes through.

With their stream-of-consciousness lyrics, backing vocals that vary from ghostly chorales to beer-soaked choruses, and music that’s both familiar and delightfully odd (the instruments include banjo, guitar and stand-up bass, but also oud, nay, doumbek and accordion), these are not easy or safe songs. But they are damn good.

Chew on the opening lines from “Assinine Race”: “Lying’s in the family / same with secrecy / battlin’ designs so deep that I lost a finger / to my mother when we played a game.”

The Orchard is full of clever turns of phrase and instrumental brilliance. The band is able to balance the surreal and the homespun. Obscure verses are interspersed with plainspoken refrains and choruses so catchy I dare you to try not to sing along, loudly. From “Toknight”: “Bishop to queen and queen to knight / Who’s to blame you suspected Jesus Christ / Well he’s everyone’s favorite scapegoat / We’ll all be alone when we sing our final note.”

Fire on Fire (from left): Chriss Sutherland, Colleen Kinsella, Caleb Mulkerin, Micah Blue Smaldone, and Tom Kovacevic. (photo/Scott Sutherland, courtesy FOF)

Fire on Fire’s members live together in a house on South Portland’s Oil Tank Riviera, and there’s no doubt this domestic proximity enhances their musical cohesion and ragged-but-right, five-part vocal harmonies. But the individual talents each brings to their collective art shouldn’t be overlooked.

Even after Fire on Fire caught the attention of Gira and tastemakers outside the 207 area code, its members continued to explore their individual artistic paths. Smaldone recommenced writing and touring as a solo performer and released Live in Belgium and The Red River (his third and fourth solo albums). Sutherland spent months traveling and performing in Spain, which led to his first solo album, the delightfully quirky and honest Me In a “Field.” Kovacevic continued playing more instruments than I can list (or pronounce) for a variety of other projects, including Smaldone’s and Sutherland’s albums, and with his other band, Tarpigh, which recently released Captain Culpeppers Carabiners and the Twinkling Lights. Kinsella and Mulkerin performed as the duo Big Blood and recorded five full-length CDRs documenting sets from their live gigs. Kinsella’s also kept busy as a visual artist (her work adorns the covers of both Fire on Fire releases).

It’s this combination of talent and artistic vision that makes Fire on Fire more than the sum of its considerable parts. And the same can be said for the disparate elements that make up The Orchard. They come together so damn well that I can’t stop playing it.

— Tom Flynn