Much of the indie rock coming out of the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1990s had a particular, cross-eyed stare: one eye looking to the cosmos, the other to the dirt. Something about the music felt both gigantic and life-sized, characterized by a seamless mingling of the mythic and the quotidian. This was how Isaac Brock could stare at the queue at a dying shopping mall's Orange Julius and see a metaphor for an existential purgatory, or how Doug Martsch, in his friendly, slacker lilt, could have late night bro-to-bro conversations with the Big Dipper.
“My heart is anew,” sings Forest Fire's Mark Thresher on Staring at the X, and so is the band’s sound. Opening track “Born Into” shows just how much they’ve changed since the ramshackle yet heartfelt Americana of their first album, Survival: it’s smoky and sleek, driven by a Velvet Underground-inspired chug that sounds much more like their Brooklyn home base than anything they’ve done before. The changes don’t stop there: “Future Shadows”’ bright pop and “The News”’ strutting rock -- which continues 2011’s reign as Year of the Saxophone with a squealing solo -- are all a part of Forest Fire's breakneck (re)invention.
Exactly where do things start with Forest Fire? You’re excused not knowing or having heard much of them, Staring At The x is the Brooklyn/Oregon five piece’s first release since 2008’s Survival album, and it’s slid into the indie firmament with little fanfare and perhaps limited coverage since its actual release last autumn. I chanced upon the album while researching other new releases on the band’s label FatCat, and I quickly realised I’d made something of a find. The culmination of several years work from this committed group of NYC musicians, Everything about Staring At The x is tightly controlled and composed, from its guitar chords through its electronic bass lines right up to the mixing board pyrotechnics that propel the songs forward.
Those fortunate enough to stumble upon the first Forest Fire album back in 2008 were rewarded with a great collection of songs that blended woozy guitars with some surprisingly folkier elements. Jump three years forward and not much has actually changed for the NYC band. Staring At the X is definitely cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, but even more so.