The Orchard is the sound of a group full of life, playing folk music full of an earthen stomp and a cautious hope.
There's plenty of new folk floating around these days. Plenty of it is quite good, but most of it tends to mine folk for its melancholy and eccentricity. Some find joy in the transience of the sound, in not being tied down, but few artists use folk to meld any permanence of place with feelings outside of loss and loneliness.
That is where Fire on Fire comes in. The collective comes from Portland, Maine and has taken on many different faces over the years. They used to be the electric-noise experimenters Cerberus Shoal, and then they became the more organic Big Blood before morphing into Fire on Fire. After releasing a great self-titled EP on Young God Records, the band has released its first full-length, The Orchard, quickly proving themselves to be a group deserving of more attention, both in folk circles and beyond.
The Orchard starts off with "Sirocco" and immediately announces the group's intentions. Like the rest of the album, the song populates itself with all acoustic instruments. Stand-up bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, accordion, etc., make a sturdy shuffling noise behind the full-throated vocals. The whole group comes in to sing the chorus, belting out what seems like a mantra for Fire on Fire: "If we tear this kingdom down / Let it be with a deserving and joyous sound." The sentiment implies an anger, surely, or at least a discomfort with things as they are, but the members of Fire on Fire aren't dragged down to frustration by the things they disagree with. Instead they galvanize and hold onto their joy, and use it as a weapon.
The feeling of living life your way, of making the world better by making the space around you great, is a feeling running through The Orchard. And while, in print, it feels overly sentimental and naive, it never sounds that way on this record. It is not all flowers in your hair and group hugs or self-righteous soapbox shouting. "Asinine Race" wonders over the connection between gender roles and identity but avoids being high-minded by filtering that idea through the universal, and admittedly whiny, feeling our families drive us crazy. "Hartford Blues" is tense with frustration, well known in places like New England, as the oncoming winter begins to make the air bitter, but a sense of place also exists, of not wanting to leave, of being a part of a community that fights against the singer's complaints. A bittersweet song, it has a dedication to it that makes road songs seem, if for a moment, just a little too easy, a little less romantic.
And that is what makes the overarching contentment of The Orchard work. It never ignores other emotions. The group sounds most unmoored on the strangely named "Heavy D." "Some like the distance / Some like the nothing," they sing on the chorus. A space around these lines makes them sound confused, disconnected. Fire on Fire seem ready to accept that kind of fatalism, but they can't quite figure it out, but a yearning in its sound makes it feel like they're always reaching out for what they don't understand rather than turning away from it.
If one thing remains clear on The Orchard, it is that Fire on Fire is not a band but a collective. These players sound like they're playing to each other as much as to us. They take turns singing the leads. They all wrote songs for the album, and because of that, the feel of the album never quite settles. Even as the sound feels similar all the way through, the way they trade instruments and singing duties keeps the listener on his or her toes. And their brand of folk music never becomes fey or precious. The Orchard is the sound of a group full of life, playing music full of an earthen stomp and a cautious hope. If it sounds melancholy in spots, it is because their joy is an honest one, a murkily human one. And if it sounds eccentric, it is because it is unique. These players have made a lot of sounds over the years. But with The Orchard, they might have found the sound they were supposed to be making all along.