Some albums you can crank up in the car as open-windowed cruising juice — a little aural merriment to accompany you for the ride. Others are just so enthralling they’ll actually make you pull over and reflect upon what you’re hearing. A Fire With Friends’ “It’s Nice To See You Again” falls under the latter category – a celestial body of work that relies heavily on meticulous arrangement, gazing introspection, and an almost intuitive, instant listener connection to succeed.
Following up 2014’s full-length “Ghost House,” this EP consists of four tracks and clocks in at just 15 minutes – it’s economical, efficient, and utterly transfixing in its musicality. A Fire With Friends is as tight as a great band should be, but somehow sounds like a collective of instrumental explorers, never satisfied until they happen upon that musical sweet spot. The Scranton six-piece hits that spot over and over, with material that alludes to the best of faux-sulk Smiths/Morrisey, the hip, frenetic rock-ified chaos of Kings of Leon, and the organic, radio-friendly zeal of acts like The Fray – although A Fire With Friends sounds as independent as “indie” can be. Had R.E.M. been born 30 years later, experiencing the uncertainty, angst, and fallout of a couple generations removed, they might sound like this band.
Another sonic slice of heaven to emerge from the ears of Jay Preston and Joe Loftus at Olyphant’s JL Studios (A Social State’s Ed Cuozzo actually served as co-engineer), the album is true to their hallmark of adequate track separation and sheer clarity throughout. “Keystone” kicks off the EP with a hurried rush of guitars and trembling lyricism – frontman Dan Rosler’s repeated, ascending refrain of “stone me first,” and his neatly tucked vocal weaving from near falsetto to ponderous scoff, provides incredible animation to this music, which incidentally never needs to fall back on fading whimsicality or passing topical references to be relevant – there’s a scarred heart beating within these tunes to which we all can relate.
“Brother” is a despondent, roots-inflected ballad, where Rosler’s already breathy voice is complemented by the lush vocal harmony of singer/songwriter Melinda May. The song treads delicately through profound reflections of loneliness and fear, as Rosler gently evaporates lines like “I’m afraid of you – I’m afraid of everyone,” and doles over “a face so long, you could wear it as a dress” – the entire lamentation courses over a grieving violin and reverent acoustic guitar; again, the instrumental layering is a good 50 percent of this music’s appeal.
“Emma Leigh” is also somewhat sobering in its presentation; reveling in that inward, slow build that bands like Switchfoot do so well – guitars elegantly used to synthesizing effect with mid-tempo drum fills bypassing a standard “2” and “4” snare hit, Rosler trailing off into falsetto while he agonizes that “it’s all my fault, again” after “all the chances we’ve had.” Near the end of the song, there appears to be what sounds like guitar/violin harmony runs that mimic the vocal line – truly inventive and powerful, showing the instrumental prowess this band does possess.
“Sun Alive” closes the EP with a punch-drunk take on the band’s brand of melancholy – the sprightly guitar jangle better than anything this side of a Danelectro or Fender Jaguar played by the hands of Peter Buck himself, with flirtatious time signature hopping and even some trombone thrown in courtesy of Jay Preston. The song can be viewed as a sort-of redemption that picks up the pieces of the shattered self, broken during the previous tracks – a great coda to the sublimely gray tones on the rest of the EP.
Music that digs to the deepest recess of our perceptions of what it is to feel, A Fire With Friends creates beautiful imagery that at once criticizes, consoles, and contributes to whatever our best ideals of self-awareness may be – tuneful thought, for sure, and the most lucid daydream you’ll ever have.
Mark is a Northeast Pennsylvania-based music journalist who’s enjoyed interviewing legends like members of Iron Maiden, The E-Street Band, and Hall & Oates, right down to the garage band next door - intrigued by a great musical story on any level.