Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: Lasting Relationships

A label’s identity is partly established through the company it keeps. The records below expand on the matter.

Bardo Pond, Under the Pines (2017) Philly’s bastion of heavy psych has been part of the Fire roster for only a portion of their existence, but based on this record, the band’s third long-player for the label (fourth if Acid Guru Pond, their 2016 studio summit with Germany’s Guru Guru and Japan’s Acid Mothers Temple is counted), the association has been a fruitful one. As the six tracks unwind it becomes apparent they haven’t lost a thing, and have further been disinclined to alter the program, so newbies with a love for prime Bay Area sweetness and post-Detroit amplifier gristle can step right up to this one.

The heavier psych gets, the more difficult it can be to effectively expand, but Bardo Pond doesn’t have that problem, mainly because they don’t really thud, but rather burn and move methodically forth, their power building incrementally in settings of subtle complexity and a preferred slow pace (the name of a collab with ace Kiwi guitarist Roy Montgomery was Hash Jar Tempo). Isobel Sollenberger’s vocals continue to add distinctiveness, shining on Under the Pines’ title track, and her flute, which is given the spotlight during instrumental closer “Effigy,” provides an unstrained link to the ’60s root.

Guided by Voices, Let’s Go Eat the Factory (2011) No one label can harness the seemingly incessant flow of creativity that springs from Dayton, OH’s songbird and rocker Robert Pollard, but since 2011 Fire’s done a solid job of corralling the return of his highest-profile band. This was not only the comeback of Guided by Voices, but the reunion of the “classic lineup” (that’d be Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on guitars, Greg Demos on bass, Kevin Fennell on drums, and Pollard at the mic, natch) making it something considerably more than a recommencement from whence GBV’s 2004 farewell victory tour left off.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory didn’t disappoint. Like the records that solidified GBV’s reputation in the mid ‘90s, it’s stuffed with songs, many of them short but satisfying in the manner unique to Pollard, as the album added to the guy’s near-gobsmacking level of songwriting prolificacy. Yes, that means not every tune is a gem, and some of it (like a pair of Sprout’s tunes) borders on bizarre, but as on the most noteworthy of later-period Pollard related product, the pieces all fit, and the whole isn’t something a fan would want to miss.

The Children’s Hour, SOS JFK (2003/2012) Other than an EP, this is the sole record from the duo of Josephine Foster and Andy Bar. While a fair amount of Foster’s output emphasizes a wise boho sensibility, SOS JFK is much nearer to the contempo folk of the period, though to call it Freak Folk is inapt as the weirdness it exudes is quite subtle in its effect.

I’m guessing the presence of harp has resulted in comparisons to Joanna Newsom, but the music here is far less ornate and closer to pop (in the timeless sense), as The Children’s Hour (apparently named for the poem by Longfellow rather than the Lillian Hellman play/ William Wyler film) thrives on its modestly-scaled conception and a deep spirit of collaboration; Bar’s fingerpicking, often bossa nova inflected, is a delight throughout. There’s also variety, with Jason Ajemian’s upright bass and Tim Daisy’s drums lending touches of folk-rock, and while consistently pretty, SOS JFK never feels fragile.

Giant Sand, Chore of Enchantment (2000/2011) When a record’s credits list three producers, the proper response is to worry, even if the names are John Parish, Jim Dickinson, and Keven Salem. In this case, the results are a fascinating sprawl; most expanded editions are padded out affairs for eager converts, but Chore of Enchantment’s unabridged version is essential as it documents Gelb’s navigation of a difficult emotional time.

Specifically, his close friend and longtime musical partner Rainer Ptacek died shortly before the making of this album, with the initial Parish sessions taking place in the studio where Ptacek had cut his last recordings. The different producers and sessions reflect Gelb’s grief, but also point to original label V2’s desire for “radio material”; a scaled-back initial version came out on Thrill Jockey (and Loose in the UK), but its Fire’s “25th Anniversary Edition” (as part of a reissue series commemorating the band’s quarter century), with the music gloriously unshackled from the confines of genre, that is the must acquisition.

Death and Vanilla, To Where the Wild Things Are (2015) Like many others I’m sure, as a young bookhound I was attracted to Penguin paperbacks, the design of which manifested itself in a variety of recurring motifs that proved of enduring interest, even when the subject matter did not. I mention this because the covers of Death and Vanilla’s second full-length and its surrounding EPs all appear clearly, though far from blatantly, derived from Penguin’s aesthetic, particularly in its Helvetica font.

It unveils a refreshing lack of anxiety over influence, a circumstance extending to the titular borrowing from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book and the obvious Silver Apples nod in opener “Necessary Distortions.” Two albums and a smattering of shorter releases may hardly appear to be a lasting relationship, and in fact the affiliation began in 2015 (the band’s ’12 debut was reissued by Fire last year). But the solidity of the rapport is illustrative; from title to jacket to sound, Death and Vanilla are plainly making the records they want to make, which is a rarer occurrence than it might seem.

Noveller, No Dreams (2013/2015) If one wanted to highlight creation untethered to superfluous constraints, Sarah Lipstate’s instrumental guitar recordings under the moniker of Noveller would be a fine choice. Unnecessary constrictions don’t equate to an absence of boundaries; her work is largely based on textures rather than notes or riffs, and the result is an identifiable sound spreading across a hefty discography.

It’s been long repeated that Lipstate has performed as part of Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army, Glenn Branca’s 100 guitar ensemble, and in collaboration with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. These connections, along with touches of minimalism, kosmische, and Robert Fripp, are reference points as she establishes her own sonic terrain; No Dreams’ penultimate track “The Fright” manages to summon Terry Riley at the start and the abstract scope of Modernist classical in the latter portion. Alongside ’11’s Glacial Glow (also reissued by Fire), No Dreams serves as a fine point of entry into Lipstate’s oeuvre.

Evan Dando, Baby I’m Bored (2003/2017) Some time had elapsed since Fire rounded up the Lemonheads’ pre-Atlantic stuff, so the news of this retrieval, which served as Dando’s first solo studio effort after a substantial break from music, came as a pleasant surprise. Upon Baby I’m Bored’s arrival, the era associated with Dando’s rise in popularity was effectively over, and the oft-casual nature of the results registered as a resetting of the stage, the aura enhanced by the ripening of his voice across the original dozen tracks.

Fire adds a disc of bonus material and a nifty 24-page book to the reissue, which came out on vinyl for Record Store Day; it stands as a swell standalone reissue and as a counterpart to those earlier Lemonheads rereleases. Those ’80s discs were enjoyable at the time but gave little inkling that Dando’s career would stretch into the 21st century, and with a record as accomplished as Baby I’m Bored. He’s yet to follow it up, but he’s playing a few UK and German dates in support of this reissue, so if you dig the guy and are nearby, don’t hesitate.

TOMORROW: A Canon of Sorts, Part Two—and we’re giving away the records you’ve been reading about this week in one tidy bundle!

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