In 2010, The Fire Tapes were virtual unknowns in Charlottesville. Made up of recent transplants from D.C. and Richmond, they had a strong sound and solid songs, but had yet to gather a following or make local connections. Three years later, they’ve become a beloved staple in the rock community. Their second album, the excellent Phantoms, will be released this weekend—and to the disappointment of their fans, it might be the band’s final album.
The Fire Tapes sound as if they could have been on college radio in the ’80s, fitting in perfectly alongside the Cowboy Junkies, Galaxie 500, Slowdive, Bongwater, and The Dream Syndicate. There’s also a fair amount of the earnest energy of Television and the spooky drawl of PJ Harvey in their sound. Contemporary bands that sound several decades displaced are hardly a novelty at this point, but The Fire Tapes seem to have captured some essential elements of older music that are often overlooked by modern day practitioners, not the least of which is an utterly earnest conviction in their material.
There’s no self-conscious appropriation or winking put-ons; The Fire Tapes play slightly twangy, reverb-heavy, romantic and mysterious shoegazer rock with dopey, abstract, and occasionally brilliant lyrics because band members love that sound. It wouldn’t occur to them to do otherwise. They’re the sort of band where multiple members have Velvet Underground tattoos, and you don’t have to ask which record is their favorite—1970’s Loaded, with its dreamy, aggressive twang essentially defined the template The Fire Tapes are working within.
Guitarist/singer Betsy Wright has a commanding stage presence and a powerful voice, providing a hook and an entryway to the dreamy maelstrom of the band’s music. It contrasts sharply (but well) with the sleepy, barely-coherent mumbling of Todd Milton, but Milton’s ambitious, energetic art-rock guitar shredding is a perfect compliment to Wright’s alt-country voice. That sugar-and-spice duality forms the core of the band’s appeal. With a guitarist and a singer this great, any halfway-competent rhythm section would be sufficient enough backing, but drummer Mark McLewee and bassist Rob Dobson are overqualified for the task, and their ability to lock into a groove with each other and the rest of the band gives their concerts an urgent energy and polish, allowing them to maintain glorious crescendos for minutes at a time.
The Fire Tapes’ recorded debut, 2011’s Dream Travel, is lacking that urgency and vitality, although it’s a perfectly pleasant (if unmemorable) listen. The follow-up LP is the forthcoming Phantoms (listen to a sample), due on September 17 on WarHen Records and it’s a drastic improvement. Like the debut, it was home recorded before being mixed and mastered by legendary producer Kramer (a perfect choice; he recorded classic albums for dozens of kindred spirits throughout the ’80s and ’90s). It still lacks the raw, visceral punch of the band’s live show—the rough edges have been rounded off of their sound, and many songs are absorbed by the prevailing ambiance of the record. But it’s also a subtle and finely crafted album, a cohesive statement full of fine details that reward repeated listens.
The nine-minute opener “Scarlet Cliffs” is a highlight that slowly builds from one piece to the next, showing off the band’s strengths without ever tipping over into excess. “Skull Xbones” and “Elements,” the two sides of the band’s single from last fall, reappear here in an improved format, more fully fleshed-out and cohesive. Throughout the album, the soft jangle of acoustic guitars are counterbalanced with the scrambling whine of electric ones. The record sounds big enough to climb inside, but cozy enough to be inviting.
The Fire Tapes play a release party for Phantoms at the Southern on September 13 with Canary Oh Canary and Residual Echoes. It’s one of the last chances to hear the band, as they plan to go on indefinite hiatus following the release of the record. “We’re taking a little bit of a break,” Wright said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen. There’s this [personal] relationship within the band that’s changed, and it’s difficult. It’s hard to play music while that’s going on, so we’ve got to let time come in and rearrange things before we look at playing together again. I’m going to be leaving town indefinitely, and it’s not like the band is just going to hire some new chick singer and go on without me or anything like that. Those are all my songs, except the ones that Todd wrote.”
The Fire Tapes have one additional appearance scheduled, at Nelson County’s The Festy Experience on October 13. “That’s the last one—until our reunion show,” Wright jokes. “I mean, if suddenly the album blew up, and a lot more people started giving a shit about us, then maybe we could keep playing. But I’m trying to be realistic about it. Things have changed a lot from when we first started out. We don’t have any shows booked past these two. Some band members are moving on. I’m going to D.C. for a while to play music with some people up there, and Rob’s doing his own thing.” Wright will be playing bass backing ex-Helium/Wild Flag indie-rock superstar Mary Timony on her upcoming album and tour, while Dobson and Dwight Howard Johnson drummer Greg Sloan have recently formed the duo Big Air.
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