Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: Enduring Relevance

Of course, a label must not rest on its laurels. Here’s seven strong ones from the last year.

Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Mid Thirties Singles Scene (2016) Fire has a solid connection Down Under, both Kiwi and Aussie, and this is amongst their best signings. Featuring the vocal, guitar, and songwriting talents of Craig Dermody, Melbourne’s SACW dish out an extension of indie rock at its slam-bang best, raise it up with subtly sharp tunes, and drive it home with a working-class comportment. In this case, the mood is resigned with an undercurrent of melancholy rather than defiant or angry.

Impossible anywhere but Australia, at times SACW’s sound harkens all the way back to the Velvets, but the way they infuse the Loaded moves with wah-pedal smudge manages to sound fresh against the odds. Folks have also mentioned Pavement; I hear more of their countrymen Eddy Current Suppression Ring, but minus that band’s post-punk angle. I once thought nothing here equaled the combo punch of opener “Maureen” and the insta-classic “It Don’t Bother Me,” but having just went back to check, the album’s later songs have gained substantial ground. I love it when that happens.

Mendrugo, More Amor (2016) Mendrugo’s core is represented by Josephine Foster, her husband Victor Herrero and his brother José Luis. With a bit of help, they offer a delightful serving of Spanish folk hitting the sweet spot where tradition, intensity, and imagination meet; the record unwinds like a series of colorful, unusual tales told by a group of close friends. Part of the enjoyment of More Amor is in hearing these expert musicians spin something utterly fresh out of the rudiments of convention.

While there is never a shortage of verve, the results are emotionally rich and deftly eccentric rather than flashy; when electric bass emerges in the mix, it does so seamlessly, its presence clearly for the betterment of the whole. The pleasure in More Amor’s making is obvious, and it spills over into the listening.

Virginia Wing, Forward Constant Motion (2016) For their second LP, this Birmingham, UK act dropped a member, slimming down to the duo of Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay, but the loss didn’t appear to hinder them. Often compared to Broadcast and Stereolab, even minus Sebastian Truskolaski’s motorik drumming they remain more rhythmically vigorous than their labelmates Death and Vanilla.

To their benefit, Virginia Wing are as weird as they are dancy, though this doesn’t mean bodies aren’t going to gyrate to “Local Loop,” at least until it takes a turn to the abstract for its finale. The terrifically buoyant “Grapefruit,” which has been described as Forward Constant Motion’s “single,” finds Richards and Pillay cozying up to bright retro-futurist pop; on the more experimental (and industrial) side is “Hammer a Nail.”

Rats on Rafts / De Kift, S/T (2016) This Dutch collaboration, teaming Zaandam’s veteran horn-wielders De Kift with Rotterdam’s comparatively youthful Rats on Rafts, is the sort of good-natured endeavor to routinely inspire excitement but too rarely deliver the goods. Occasionally, the problem is a lack of preparation; more regularly it simply comes down to good intentions not leading to creative spark.

The contents herein are an exception. Defined as a union of punks, neither participant fits the orthodox definition of the style, with De Kift having formed an extensive bond with the greatest Dutch punks of them all, The Ex. Rats on Rafts’ fringe bona fides are in evidence on their album Tape Hiss, some of which gets reworked here; if not as aggressive across this collab, the tempering allows room for De Kift to shine, with the contributors meshing into a unified sound.

Las Kellies, Friends and Lovers (2016) Formed in Buenos Aires in 2005, Las Kellies are riot-grrls who specialize in the post-punk side of the equation; rather than flailing forth with righteous anger, they exude sophistication enhanced with stylistic range. There’s prime body-moving a la ESG, a detectable reggae influence, Velvety rock action, new wave and indie pop, with Silvina Costa and Cecilia Kelly maintaining a tough, guitar-focused approach throughout.

Fans of Wanna Buy a Bridge?-era Rough Trade should find this one hard to resist, but Friends and Lovers never really registers as a deliberate attempt to conjure that period’s essence. For starters, there are touches of subsequent affairs, a few flashes of almost shoegaze guitar for example, plus the terrific late-album nugget “Sundays,” which makes a clear move for pop territory but with a penchant for the groove intact and strengthened by a hearty guitar riff.

Howe Gelb, Future Standards (2016) Over the decades, both in Giant Sand and in his solo material, Howe Gelb has made a point of occasionally messing with expectations. Surely nobody was predicting that he would make a record with a full-on gospel choir (‘Sno Angel Like You), and that it would stand as one of the finest releases in the guy’s now massive discography. From his start in early ’80s Arizona, this tweaking of the program has no doubt limited Gelb’s audience, as he’s a little too rough around the edges and experimental for those who prefer their alt-country/ Americana straightforward.

Future Standards is yet another expert curveball, digging into the Great American Songbook, not via interpretations, but with a concise set of 11 originals, a few featuring duet partner Lonna Kelley. It’s a risky maneuver, but it succeeds mainly because Gelb doesn’t additionally alter the program; the mood is intimate, the playing and singing rich, and the songs consistently solid.

Jane Weaver, Modern Kosmology (2017) To be specific, this list is six from 2016, and this, Jane Weaver’s latest LP, which doesn’t come out until the 19th of this month; the Mancunian artist’s rewarding platter augments our salute to Fire’s past with a small nod toward the eminent future. Noted for her growth, Weaver has moved from folkish singer-songwriter territory into the realms of space rock and experimental pop.

But don’t think she’s broken with her past. While a whole lot of perfectly fine Krautrock-inspired material focuses primarily on the extension of techniques, e.g. motorik rhythms and kosmische expansiveness, much of Modern Kosmology’s appeal is delivered through the integration of honest-to-goodness tunes amid the outward tendencies. Exuding moments in league with mid-’90s indie rock and dance club motions from roughly the same period, Weaver also nods to Laurie Spiegel and crafts some highly advanced, gemlike psych-pop. There’s even a pleasant guest spot by Malcom Mooney of Can.

TOMORROW: Lasting Relationships

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