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

Formed in 1984, Fire Records has a huge number of releases in its catalog. This week we celebrate 33 1/3 of the best, and it seems appropriate to begin the plunge with a few of the records that establish the label’s high level of quality and roughly define the parameters of their pursuit. So away we go.

Close Lobsters, Foxheads Stalk this Land (1987) Nailing down Fire’s first classic release is a debate-worthy topic, but without question the debut album from this Scottish band will be part of the discussion. Due to the Lobsters’ presence on the era-defining New Musical Express compilation C86, they endure as one of ’80s indie pop’s core acts, but unlike some of their cohorts they didn’t squander that momentum and shrivel in the spotlight.

Foxheads is one of indie pop’s stronger long-form statements, in the same ballpark as Up for a Bit with The Pastels and George Best. Like The Wedding Present, the Lobsters relied upon energetic jangle, a tactic in full flower here via “In Spite of These Times” and the wickedly infectious “I Take Bribes,” but they also maintained a distinct personality within the subgenre; this disc captures them honing it, spiking the melodicism with louder moments and culminating with the raucous, nearly eight minute “Mother of God.” Altogether, this is a prerequisite for any indie pop shelf.

Lemonheads, Lick (1988/2013) Over the years, Fire’s value has been considerably deepened by a steady stream of well-chosen reissues, their efforts keeping a slew of important material in print. Such is the case with the early recordings of the Lemonheads; formed in ’80s Boston, they straddled punk, college rock, and the gradually unfolding alternative scene, of which the group became a major contributor.

Inconceivable without the precedent of Hüsker Dü, by Lick they’d begun to expand beyond that template a bit. Additionally, the set documents the exit of founding member Ben Deily; as it’s the final disc prior to Evan Dando signing with Atlantic, it marks the end of an era. Filled out with previously recorded stuff, including a “hit” cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” Lick is uneven, but it grows punkier as it progresses and shines a bright light on the stylistic contrasts that caused Deily to depart. It all goes down quite easy today, and any record with a cover of Proud Scum’s “I am a Rabbit” is cool with me.

Half Japanese, Hear the Lions Roar (2017) By this point songwriter, guitarist and Half Japanese bandleader Jad Fair needs no introduction, but in short, he’s a pillar of the underground who helped pioneer the DIY and outsider sides of the movement. It’s been said that Fair doesn’t have the look, the voice, the attitude, or the chops for rock ‘n’ roll, and yet with casual ingenuity in the chronicling of love and monsters, he IS rock ‘n’ roll.

If one wants to jump into Half Jap’s prodigious discography, Fire’s got that covered, and it’s an amazing ride. But it’s even more of a mindblower that Hear the Lions Roar, which came out this past January, provides such a worthwhile listening experience. The duo configuration of Half Japanese commenced over 40 years ago; having long since grown into a band (with Fair as the one constant), the latest extends from their fertile ’90s period, a maneuver especially effective as it features the same players as ’95’s Hot. Like that record, the more Hear the Lions Roar plays, the better it sounds.

The Bevis Frond, New River Head (1991/2016) Nick Soloman is the king of Brit neo-psych, achieving the honor through sheer prolificacy and sustained quality reached by refusing to indulge ’60s clichés; instead, he travels deep into the essence of the style. Although too few know his work as The Bevis Frond, there is a ton of it (well, something like 28 albums worth) and Fire has reissued the earliest, and in the case of New River Head, one of the best.

Sharp-edged, garage-tinged, pop-focused, punky, expansive, occasionally explosive, and consistently personal, the album’s contents benefit from its four-sided configuration, and the enlargement to 30 tracks on 2CD, totaling a whopping 2:36:27, is also a beautiful doozy. 17 of those minutes are taken up by “The Miskatonic Variations II,” which finds Soloman channeling the Hendrix of “Voodoo Chile” while hinting at the emergence of Bardo Pond (we’ll get to them later this week).

Josephine Foster, I’m a Dreamer (2013) Having emerged as part of the New Weird America, Josephine Foster is accurately tagged as a folk musician, but her work covers so much territory, tackling Emily Dickinson and James Joyce, German Lieder, children’s songs, psychedelia, Spanish folk (with her husband Victor Herrero), and Tin Pan Alley pop, that it can be difficult to choose a point of introduction.

Fortunately, there is I’m a Dreamer, which documents a pair of visits to Nashville in 2011-’12. The results have been assessed as Americana, and that’s not wrong, but it’s an unconventional if welcoming specimen of the genre, wedding Tin Pan Alley-ish tunes to a country template that’s strikingly wide; there’s cascading poppish piano, honky-tonk pedal steel, folky harmonica, and even traces of Old-Time. In the middle sits a poem by Kipling. A big ol’ stand-up bass provides an anchor, and Foster’s natural bohemian style keeps matters from ever getting cutesy.

Giant Sand, Beyond the Valley of Rain (1985/2010) Here’s the record that began Arizonan Howe Gelb’s long journey as the leader of Giant Sand. Well, if one wishes to go all the way back to the very beginning, there was the new wave/ post-punk Giant Sandworms, with traces of the outfit’s existence intermittently felt across Beyond the Valley of Rain. It can be heard in the emotional tension of “Tumble & Tear,” and in fact the whole record feels like a desert extension of the Paisley Underground (unsurprisingly, it was originally released on Black Sand/ Enigma).

Giant Sand’s output, today encompassing around 40 albums, can be daunting for a newbie, but comfort is provided by large hunks of it being so easily obtainable. Still, Beyond the Valley of Rain often gets overlooked or pegged as a formative work, and that’s off target, as it’s a solidly satisfying transitional one, with those paisleys fading slightly as the groundwork is laid for the side of alt-country that embraced Neil Young. Don’t sleep on it.

Pulp, It (1983/2012) Pulp joined the early Fire roster in 1985 with the single “Little Girl (With Blue Eyes),” subsequently issuing two albums and a handful of 45s and EPs for the company that predate Jarvis Cocker’s explosive ’90s Britpop success. Upon reuniting for live shows in 2011, the decision was apparently made to entirely overlook Pulp’s early stuff, a choice that surely disappointed a small but dedicated pocket of the group’s fanbase. But around the same time Fire reissued their early catalog and added It, which predated the label’s existence by roughly a year.

Initially released on Red Rhino and then Cherry Red, It’s contents, including two cuts from a 1981 Peel Session, are exactly the kind of material Cherry Red specialized in, but it also sounds like a record Fire would’ve reissued had Pulp never recorded another note. The album has been critically belittled over the decades, but as part of the great turning away from abrasion and anger toward Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen-informed poetic crooning, it continues to fascinate. Fans of Felt, Momus, and The Smiths take note.

TOMORROW: Underrated Gems and Deeper Cuts

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