Scene on Fire

Portland neo-folkies go international
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 23, 2008
LONE RANGER: Chriss Sutherland.

The sun is really shining on Portland’s experimental-folk community these days. Loads of praise in the fall — raves for Fire on Fire and Big Blood in The Onion and various indie blogs — culminated in the recent news that a few acts on Portland’s DIY L’Animaux Tryst label would be featured in a glowing review (and a color picture) in the forthcoming issue of The Wire, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious music magazine. Moreover, both FoF (and its various offshoots) and L’Animaux received ample love in a year-end wrap-up by the avant-garde music Web site Foxy Digitalis (Best Label, Best 3”, Best 7”, Best EP, etc.).

In deference to Portland’s growing indie cred, Foxy Digitalis’s Tulsa-based label imprint, Digitalis Recordings, is releasing new albums by Fire on Fire’s Chriss Sutherland and L’Animaux Tryst’s franchise act, Cursillistas (the moniker of label proprietor Matt Lajoie). (For more on the label, see "L'Animaux Collective," by Christopher Gray, May 18, 2007.) Sutherland’s solo debut, Me in a “Field”, is currently available at, and Cursillistas’s Wasp Stings the Last Bitter Flavor will be out soon. The two will mark their accomplishments with a CD-release show at SPACE Gallery on January 31.

Me in a "Field" by Chriss Sutherland | released by Digitalis Recordings

Wasp Stings the Last Bitter Flavor by Cursillistas | released by Digitalis recordings
The unlikely tie that binds these two albums is their maturity. Sutherland, a restless vocal inventor who usually travels folk music’s rockier terrain, has never sounded so sober or humble; Cursillistas, a champion of pregnant whispers and abstract evocation, never so confident or graceful.

Me in a “Field” is a Sunday morning album after a Saturday night bender. It’s a yarn of earnest fixations — tempering bad behavior, bridging the distance between far-flung lovers, admitting weakness, embracing friends and family — wrought with determination, be it to set things right or admonish past wrongs. It hops through a sampler of tones and vocal styles — from the open-hearted Spanish guitar and stirring background vocals of “La Familia”‘ to the sparse, lo-fi echo chamber of “Grumblin’”– as though searching for the best brand of resilience.

Sutherland’s knack for piercing lyrics — “maybe I was who I thought I was/A little bastard crawling through the mud,” from “Grumblin’” — fits smoothly with more refined tracks like the defeatist ballad “Fadin’ Out” or the rambling philosophy of the Dylanesque “Deseos.” In sacrificing the more manic disposition of his work with Fire on Fire and Cerberus Shoal, the singer presents a broad array of vocal deliveries — from “El Calor De La Noche”’s twangy anguish to “People Loving People”’s unhinged warbling — without sacrificing his sense of purpose.

Cursillistas, meanwhile, accomplish a great deal with two vocal tones — the life-giving exhale and the moany, menacing inhale. Acting in tandem, these are the prevailing winds of Wasp Stings the Last Bitter Flavor, a tightrope act between man and machine, and nature and nurture. These dichotomies spiral into a dreamlike reality that evokes unlikely images: a wolf at the door that wouldn’t think to bite you; speaking in tongues in the basement of a manufacturing plant.

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