Ever since the release of his debut album Salesmen and Racists back in the day, it was clear that Ike Reilly would stray the way of the rock ‘n’ roll troubadour: never quite famous, but always the fringe realist demanding universal respect within his niche in the musical world. 15 years and six albums later — both with and without his band the Assassination — Reilly’s still got this description finely emblazoned on all that he does, acting as a true trailblazer of the industry in his own right. Crafting his own space somewhere between the cockles of rock and roll roots throughout the past decade and a half, his sound comes to a whole on the fantastic Born on Fire: a culmination of his years recording and performing that totally embrace his well-worn policy of “quality over quantity.”
As far as his overarching body of work is concerned, Reilly’s sonic indelibility only remains second fiddle to his astounding ability to craft a personal story and envelop it in song. It’s in tracks such as opener “Born on Fire”, from which the album takes its title, that it becomes evident why comparisons between Reilly and Bob Dylan don’t seem quite so alien. “I can’t leave you no money,” he forthrightly sings with a no-nonsense, at-ease rigidness to his vocal, “I can’t leave you no land / I can’t leave you no faith / I lost what little I had…But I can leave you this truth / Hold on to desire / And take your flames to the streets / ‘Cause you were born on fire”. Ending the track with an expansive chorus, Reilly strikes a unique chord by wrapping a song in such forthright, auspicious favor.
Also of prominence among the more roots-flavored offerings on the record is “Am I Still the One For You”. At first featuring a simplistic acoustic melody stamped out by a guitar that evolves into full instrumentation with a clap-along groove, Reilly inhabits the song as snugly as a good winter coat. With a little grit, he delivers as many frank, often socially stringent truths to a perceived love, asking of them bluntly: “Am I still the one for you?” What truly makes the song shine is in the way that Reilly so easily takes on the song. By all means, it’s a relaxed, danceable folk rock-feeling number, but lyrically, it’s taken to a one-part optimism, two-parts cynicism area that Reilly and few other modern artists know how to occupy so comfortably.
Closing track “Paradise Lane” takes a similar route in those vocal regards as “Am I Still the One for You”, but culminates with the choral genius of the titular “Born on Fire”, with Tom Morello’s brilliant signature work on electric guitar driving it home as an easy rocker tinged with psychedelics not previously seen within Reilly’s 15 years of prolific work. Other tracks that are especially of note include the strong funk-driven groove of “Job Like That (Laselle & Grand)” and the DJ-led “Do the Death Slide!”, the latter of which strongly accentuates Reilly’s special knack for slipping into character before rocking out at full force. It isn’t that Reilly can go toe-to-toe and win with modern day incarnations of those whom he’s often compared to — artists like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan — but that he could easily go head-to-head with them and still put up one heck of a fight. Born on Fire accentuates that fact to a great degree, and as far as this year’s rock offerings go, you’d be hard-pressed to find much better.