There’s nothing inherently wrong with looking backward for musical inspiration, or for focusing your gaze on the styles and aesthetics grouped together under the loose heading of “Americana.” The greatest rewards from this approach tend to go to the artists that are able to fuse traditionalist styles with more modern aesthetics, and the process can be rewarding to follow and absorbing to hear. Wilco, especially since Nels Cline has joined the band, have navigated the tension between familiar folk- and country-rooted styles and more dissonant elements through multiple albums. Castanets have worked with jazz and dub musicians while still retaining a core rooted in ballads and sacred music. That the lineup of Forest Fire, a bi-coastal rock band led by singer-guitarist Mark Thresher, includes occasional Castanets member Nathan Delffs seems like no coincidence. Forest Fire’s Survival occupies a similar terrain between what’s expected of Americana-influenced indie rock and something more expansive, though their still-evolving style has the ability to captivate and frustrate in equal measure.
“I Make Windows” opens the album in widescreen mode, with a strummed guitar and some vocals that grow from whispered to layered. It’s a solid campfire sing-along in which Thresher’s voice is bolstered by Myisha Battle’s harmonies, and it suggests, at the very least, that Forest Fire are careful students of The Band. The later “Sunshine City” balances Thresher’s voice with what sounds like a chorus of male and female vocalists as it contrasts his acoustic guitar with brief electric accentuations. The parallel structure is subtle but effective. And from hearing these songs, one might conclude that the group possesses a sense of their own strengths and dynamics.
Elsewhere, though, that self-knowledge seems much more in doubt. The album’s weakest points come when Thresher’s vocals are left alone, positioned with little instrumental accompaniment. “Fortune Teller,” Survival’s weakest point by far, consists of little more than Thresher delivering stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a monotonous drumbeat. His voice works best when it’s part of a chorus, or placed alongside a second voice for contrasting effect. Here it’s unaccompanied, pushed to its limits and reciting lyrics about how the narrator will “melt some faces with Gatling gun social skills”. The result is an awkward, unconvincing stumble that effectively derails the album.
Far more interesting is the jarring “Promise.” Over a pounding drumbeat and a cloud of feedback comes a buzzing saxophone, an instrumental choice that shifts the album’s mood from languorous and familiar to unpredictable and dissonant, and introduces the threat that Forest Fire could shift gears to no-wavey skronk at any time. The songs that follow retain some of that unpredictability. “Echoes Coming” ends with another roaring saxophone, while “Steer Me” takes a standard folk-rock lament and applies sheets of keening atop it. And “Slow Motion,” which closes the album, features the best use of Thresher’s voice in the twenty-six minutes that make up Survival; he sounds like a sort of maddened preacher, shouting out the song’s title over guitar, steady drumming, and a growing balloon of distortion. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the record, tying together its different elements and demonstrating a style far less indebted to those that have come and gone before.