Every week, dozens of unsolicited CDs land on my desk. Logistically, it is impossible to listen to them all, so I am reduced to snap decisions based on factors like the track record of a particular label—which is why I almost missed my new favorite band.
In Plain Song, the debut album from the Higher Burning Fire, was released by Second Nature Recordings, a Kansas City, Mo., label that specializes in hardcore punk—not my regular cup of tea. So when I received the package containing THBF's CD a couple months back, the disc was headed for the to-be-discarded pile almost as soon as I noted the return address. But then something caught my attention: A cursory mention in the accompanying press release that the disc might remind listeners of "the late-'60s Left Banke," the group responsible for "Walk Away Renee."
Intrigued, I popped in the disc and was greeted not by blistering guitars and adolescent shouting, but vibrant orchestral pop featuring a polychromatic array of strings, brass, banjo, and even wind chimes. And that's only a fraction of the baroque majesty to which the group aspires. "For the most part, those were demos," reveals drummer John Anderson by phone from Kansas City. "We wanted boys' choir and orchestra on all the songs, but we didn't have much time and money."
As the title implies, In Plain Song features deceptively straightforward ditties, albeit dressed up in arrangements that call to mind Beach Boys maestro Van Dyke Parks, Cardinal's self-titled full-length, and the Zombies' 1968 masterpiece Odessey & Oracle. "They're big influences on us, the Zombies and the Left Banke," admits singer-guitarist Raymond Morin from Lawrence, Kan. "And I've always liked Simon and Garfunkel. My favorite stuff by them was like Bookends, where on the one hand you have all these crazy arrangements, but it still has that folk element to it." But until he met Anderson in 1998, Morin thought "you couldn't do that kind of thing any more."
Anderson, ironically, cut his teeth in Boy's Life, a mid-'90s heartland outfit once described as the bastard offspring of Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu. After that band split, Anderson signed up briefly with Lullaby for the Working Class, which tuned his ear in new directions. "I got more into songs and melody," Anderson recalls. "I stopped caring about what fill I was doing. I became more concerned about making music with songwriters, as opposed to being in a band that writes a few parts and then fuses them into a song."
Attention to detail is key to every component of the Higher Burning Fire's aesthetic; take the band's moniker (which came to Anderson in a dream). "Most people just refer to us as Higher Burning Fire, but it's actually The Higher Burning Fire," insists the drummer. "Whenever there's flyers for shows, they almost always say just Higher Burning Fire. I think on the next record we're going to spell it Thee Higher Burning Fire, just to put the emphasis on it."
And then there's In Plain Song's striking cover art, a yellow, purple, and cocoa-colored city skyline bathed in sunlight. "We all got together with the construction paper and scissors and started cutting," recalls Morin. "Everyone made little buildings and rays for the sun and confetti. That was a good time. We were listening to Minor Threat and Led Zeppelin, eating pizza. That was one of the only times we were together doing the same thing at the same time."
What's this, a hint of strife? While geography has conspired to hinder the Higher Burning Fire's productivity and live shows, with various members calling Lawrence, Kansas City, and Fayetteville, Ark., home, a bigger obstacle has been finding musicians who "get" the vibe of the band (which also includes singer-guitarist Dustin Than Kinsey, multi-instrumentalist Zack Holland, and pianist Seth Mehl). Bass players in particular have been problematic.
"We need [bass] players who can play for the song," Morin explains. "A lot of the bass players around here are playing like the Chicago bands, with a lot of chords in the bass. I like that kind of music, but [that style] doesn't really complement the music we write very well at all. We're trying to get past the indie rock thing."
Currently, the quintet is working on new material ("the songwriting has progressed tenfold," says Anderson, noting that Kinsey has taken up orchestral scoring in the last year) and planning to relocate to New York City. Although they would like to hook up with a more simpatico label, for now the quintet is happy to be the odd man out at Second Nature.
"The funny thing is that it seems a lot of hardcore kids who've gotten their hands on the album really dig it," Anderson concludes. "As one of my friends said, 'Hey man, hardcore kids have to make out sometimes, too.'"