Hungry River Hymns
Fire Next Time is a folk band, playing catchy songs with poetic lyrics that are anchored by acoustic guitar and splashes of banjo. Live, fans love to sing along with lead singer James Renton’s passionate verses while the band dresses with style and the appropriate number of members have hipster friendly beards.
While they are a folk band, Fire Next Time is not Mumford & Sons. Renton’s raspy wails spew forth genuine emotion, which complements the lyrics perfectly. An underlying sense of chaos weaves throughout the album, as if a barely contained demon is straining to break free. Every song feels as if it could descend into complete madness at any second. The caterwauling guitar is tempered by the pluck of the banjo, contrasting each other in a sonic battle. Likewise, the group harmonies complement Renton’s vocals, if only because of their stark disparity. This is not shallow radio friendly folk music watered down for mass consumption. Nor is this your grandfather’s Woody Guthrie album, hissing and popping through songs of hope and redemption as it spins on the record player.
Hungry River Hymns begins with a short sonic burst of unfettered chaos, rolling along with the barest semblance of a melody, like a ghost in the fog always just beyond your eyesight. They barrel along with obvious energy, faint echoes of punk rock resonating in the shadows. Mary is a simple plea to a loved one, a sorrowful sparse tune reminiscent of legendary songwriter Tom Russell. Rosewood initially existed as a Renton solo tune called Rosewood Jesus, which caused goose bumps every time he played it live. The addition of the full band changes the dynamic some, unfortunately watering down the effectiveness of the chilling song. However, the haunting tale of racism, murder and betrayal works well with Renton’s rough voice. If there are glimpses of hope elsewhere in the album, this song at the heart of the album dispels all such notions, instead exposing the darkness that lies deep within the hearts of man. Occasionally inflections of country music are heard, like in Chapter 31. Country like The Sadies or Dave Alvin, not anything you would hear on the radio, moody and propelled forward by guitar.
Lyrically, Fire Next Time wear their surroundings like a badge. Vague references betray their home, places they have visited on tour, the weariness of long drives through empty environments. Murder ballads sit next to soft hearted pleas to lovers long gone. These are stories from the road, from cold northern winters, from hungover mornings of regret. Empty stomachs in freezing train cars rattling across the barren prairies. The underlying feel of Hungry River Hymns is reminiscent of a John Steinbeck novel, wonderful stories about real people exposing the darkness at the heart of every day life. In The Woods, this emptiness is evident as Renton sings “I hear the whistle blowing/ The train is right on time/ And I swear that I’d be moving on/ But in hunger/ I swallowed my last dime.” The lovers are all gone. The friends are all freaks and fuck ups, dwelling together in desperation. Like the album suggests, there are religious overtones throughout, but these are not happy songs of worship. These are songs for the left behind, those lost but still looking for a redemption that they will never find. This is clearly addressed in Runnin’ Out of Time, “Taker, you great forsaker/ I’m down on my knees,/ Come take me away. Now, I’m praying to the gods/ Of whiskey, lust and drugs/ And if you see my mama/ Tell her I’m doing okay.”
At times, Murder by Death seems to be the most obvious comparisons, but that doesn’t accurately describe their sound. The vocals are ragged and road worn like Chuck Ragan. The banjo adds a noticeable bright spot to the sound. Whoa ohs betray their punk rock past. The songs weave uncontrollably between simple chord sing alongs and meandering melodies like Titus Andronicus. Haunting organ, striking saw and scratchy washboard add depth to the music, elevating it to higher levels. They comfortably own their sound, a blend of discordant influences mashed together with vigor.
Fire Next Time play music designed for darkness. These are songs to accompany a Cormac McCarthy novel, bleakness pervading the very essence of the album. Broken men with broken hearts, passed out on the dirty floor, too scared to swallow the bullet, slowly dying one drink at a time. Sepia photographs of rotting barns on abandoned farmsteads. Fly riddled carcasses of dogs by the roadside. Sitting on the porch, shotgun in hand, empty bottle of whiskey on the table, watching as the day fades to night, shadows swallowing the world as the blackness slowly creeps toward you. The uneasy realization that you are alone, there lies no redemption at the end of the road, all of your loss in life will simply fade as your body decomposes and is eaten by worms. There is no god here, only faint ruminations of a man desperately searching for meaning in a shattered world, looking for a reason to carry on despite the sorrow… and finding nothing.
Fire Next Time is hymns for the drunken and the damned.