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Spires That in the Sunset Rise - This is Fire

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Artist: Spires That in the Sunset Rise

Album: This is Fire

Label: Secret Eye

Review date: Nov. 25, 2006

While there’s nothing overtly occult about their music, it’s probably best that Spires That in the Sunset Rise weren’t inhabitants of Salem, Mass., in the 1690s. The Chicago quartet play folk-informed music that’s both atavistic and distinctly modern, strangely affecting all the while. To call their music creepy would do it a disservice, as the atmosphere it builds is richer than a simple goosebump-raising chill… but there’s something about Spires’ sound that is unquestionably unsettling. This is Fire is Spires’ third full-length, and their second on Secret Eye; a collection of burnt-out campfire songs far more evocative of the dark night on a windswept prairie than the group’s metropolitan home.

They’re far from the only victims of this taxonomical offense, but to pigeonhole Spires That in the Sunset Rise simply as a folk troupe simplifies their music in a way that ignores much of what provides its particular appeal. Spires are evolved from a ramshackle brand of Americana, a new construction made with pieces left discarded, ingredients reassembled in novel ways. Their music can be beautiful, but it’s not rife with smooth edges or sharp corners, instead it moves with a pronounced lilt, staying rhythmically true, but often with a seasick sway, which often contributes to the album’s baleful streak. The quartet’s instrumentation, however, is as responsible for their distinguishing sound as much as the songwriting, if not more. The spike fiddle (an instrument, part of the oud family, that’s known as an rebab) is the music’s most distinctive voice; the two-stringed fiddle echoes the sound of its more famous (and traditional) four-stringed cousin with a decidedly middle-eastern flavor, its output thin and wiry whether plucked or bowed. Acoustic guitars are often used as a track’s melodic backbone, but they appear often as a queasy slide, slippery footholds able to render the most innocuous melody drunken and unsteady. Autoharp, recorder, cello, mbira, harmonium, and percussion also make appearances, with the quartet consistently shifting instrumentation, and, at times, vocal duites. Kathleen Baird tends to handle the bulk of the singing; her voice is one of strident power, husky and forceful without heavy-handedness, often she’s at her best when singing in an almost monotone fashion, a caster of spells focused and dynamic amidst the music.

This is Fire doesn’t follow a single course, but whether Spires are being dreamily hypnotic or engaging in more spindly, jagged fare, the results are like a siren’s song; attractive, to be sure, but not without a degree of ominous portent. What’s hazily pretty may be suddenly drawn into the mire, and the simplest of song forms can be purposefully misshapen, with transfixing results. And while, in 2006, Spires That in the Sunset Rise aren’t likely to be burned at stakes or dropped, pockets full, into rushing rivers, This is Fire burns with enough otherworldly auras to arouse suspicion amongst the commoners of something more sinister.

By Adam Strohm

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