Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: A Canon of Sorts, Part Two

And so, here is a second dose of Fire Records’ defining highlights as we culminate this doffing of the cap to a fine enterprise’s truly deep catalog; hey, we could’ve easily done 33 1/3 more!

Bardo Pond, S/T (2010) By the point of this release, which served as Bardo Pond’s full-length debut for Fire, the band had existed for nearly 20 years. Placing this in the “canon” might seem a questionable move, but that’s where the “of sorts” comes in, though I do rank this 70-minute, 2LP set quite highly, considering it a prime example of Fire’s range of output and a highpoint in the discography of the band.

Yesterday, in describing their latest Under the Pines, I stated that the Pond program hadn’t been altered, but please don’t mistake that as meaning their records are interchangeable. No, the loose trance-bluesy opening of “Just Once” lends immediate distinctiveness to this effort, which won’t be confused with the outfit’s other releases. “Don’t Know About You” carries them into stoner/ doom territory (Isobel Sollenberger’s ominous vocal drives it sweetly home), and the 21-minute “Undone” is a showcase of inspired extendedness. Bardo Pond is a gem illuminating psychedelia’s true potential.

Television Personalities, The Painted Word (1984/1990/2017) The early LPs by this crucial post-punk act were first reissued by Fire in 1990; there have been additional pressings, with the catalog deservedly coming out again this year. An early, thoroughly British example of neo-psychedelia with a dash of Mod and a helping of twee, Television Personalities have been led since formation in 1978 by the inspired eccentric Dan Tracey.

Those only familiar with “Part Time Punks” and debut album …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It might be surprised by the change; the cover photo is indicative, as much of The Painted Word enhances the blend of Swinging London, Pop Art, Ray Davies and Syd Barrett with Velvets-derived edge. Early members Ed Ball and Mark Sheppard are absent, but Joe Foster is still around, and the record does retain ties to prior efforts; “Someone to Share My Life With” is audibly post-Jon Richman, while “Happy All the Time” effectively hits that twee button. “Back to Vietnam” caps a dark set that’s gotten better with age.

The Chills, Silver Bullets (2015) Two years ago seems like such a simpler time, doesn’t it? Listening to the chiming, energetic guitar-pop beauty of The Chills’ unexpected studio comeback from that year only enhances the feeling, at least until the disc’s social investment becomes overt. Just for starters, there’s the defiant “America Says Hello” and the ambitiously catchy album standout and career highlight “Pyramid / When the Poor Can Reach the Moon.”

Not that the rest of the tunes are paeans to escapism, as it’s never been that way with Martin Phillipps. Since helping to establish the ’80s Flying Nun sound (alongside the other big names in FN’s early wave; that’d be The Clean, The Bats, The Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs), the guy’s been one of the planet’s go-to architects for advanced pop, and yet he’s been too often underappreciated, a circumstance making Silver Bullets’ goodness that much sweeter. The more one listens, the tougher the record’s mood gets, with lyrics from the title cut predictive of where we’re at in 2017.

Spacemen 3, The Perfect Prescription (1987/1989/2013) It occurs to me that this, the second full-length from these heavily influential psychedelic kingpins, was the first Fire album I purchased way back in early 1990, shortly after the label picked it up (it was originally released by the Glass imprint). It’s been given a handful of pressings since, which is unsurprising considering the band’s importance; a high percentage of contemporary psychedelia can be traced directly back to Peter Kember (Sonic Boom) and Jason Pierce (J Spaceman).

These days, many are more familiar with their subsequent work in Spectrum and E.A.R. (Kember) and Spiritualized (Pierce), productivity that transpired after an acrimonious split that’s never been patched up. I dig all that stuff, but I don’t think they ever topped their work together (which I understand will come as heresy to the hoards who consider Spiritualized to be a big fucking deal). Spacemen 3’s Suicide-minimal, openly pro-drug, and Velvets-cool approach to psych remains one of the treats of the 1980s, and shorn of sentimental reasons, it would still easily make this list.

Neutral Milk Hotel, On Avery Island (1996) Yanks will associate the long-playing debut of Jeff Magnum’s indie-folk-psych act with Merge Records, but in Europe is was released by Fire, who gave it a fresh vinyl pressing in 2015. It was the next album, ’98’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (issued in Europe not by Merge or Fire but Domino), that resulted in Neutral Milk Hotel’s enduringly fervent following, but all the rudiments are here.

The surreal imagery, the bold, at-times strained singing, the folky strumming, the florid instrumentation in lo-fi trappings; by now, it’s a stone cinch that Magnum’s fans know this album inside and out. An observation; with only Robert Schneider’s numerous instruments and production and Rick Benjamin’s trombone as the common threads with Aeroplane, the sonic cohesiveness of the two records is remarkable, underscoring Magnum’s strength as an auteur in a short span. Avery ends not with solo soul-purge but extended abstraction; if not as celebrated as Aeroplane, it’s just as essential.

Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978/2015) Is Pere Ubu’s debut the greatest record covered in this week’s salute? Well, it’s certainly close, but that’s not the reason for placing them in this spot. Part of the top position relates to affinity; if asked to succinctly describe Fire Records, I’d call them a post-punk label, and if queried for concise language concerning Pere Ubu’s essence, I’d likely skip “avant-garage” and use the same terminology.

Of course, Ubu formed and released records before “punk” was common parlance, in the wild early days when the genre wasn’t so stylistically codified. The Modern Dance also rounds out this spotlight with representation of the unusually fertile relationship between Fire and Ubu’s head man David Thomas in the revising and reissue of the group’s discography. As unlikely as it would’ve seemed 15 years ago, the thematic vinyl boxing of the Ubu catalog is nearing completion, and it’s one of the primary reasons why Fire’s future is as promising as its past is satisfying. Here’s to them.

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