Ever since they released The Ponzi Scheme in 1998, I have been interested in Firewater. The band’s music, led by Tod A.’s cynically gruff vocals, has an angry flavor that belies a hidden, inner current of sophisticated subversiveness that is a welcome gleam in the eye of the indie rock* world. With Songs We Should Have Written, a 12-song collection of covers (all of which work exceptionally well within the band’s M.O.), Firewater gives us an imaginative, often disturbing reassessment of some songs many of us probably thought we knew like the backs of our own hands.
Prime example: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” On Firewater’s side of the tracks, the song you thought you knew is radically deconstructed, pulled apart by Tod A. and Co.’s musical snarl. Drums march a chain-gang rhythm and the anti-melody that’s maintained by the keyboard gets in your head like a high gone bad, all the brown acid poured graciously over Cash’s classic like prison gruel over brown shoe-leather potatoes, leaving a frightening, skeletal exaltation to the demons the Man in Black wrestled with his entire career.
Judging from much of Firewater’s past work, demons are something they are quite familiar with. It is this insight that makes another track, the band’s rendition of Sunday school’s traditional “This Little Light of Mine,” all that much more satisfying and absurd. By inverting the context and underlining it as a dark and lonely last ditch effort against despair, the tune is transformed through the group’s mirrored eyes from the hymn of hope it was intended to be into a ready-made Firewater classic.
These are just two examples of what is in store for the eager listener on Songs We Should Have Written. Another element is the added instrumentation the band uses on the album. It’s not as lavishly layered as is Ponzi, but the band obviously called in some markers. We get the return of the baritone sax, which helps Firewater turn up the authentic Jamaican swelter on “Storm Warning,” as well as a nice helping of mellotron, pedal steel and even sitar on the opium trance formerly thought recognized as a Stones oldie called “Paint it Black.”
Brita Phillips, of Luna and Dean Wareham and Brita Philips, joins Tod A. for two duets — a cover of Sonny and what’s her name’s “The Beat Goes On” and one of “Some Velvet Morning,” a Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra song you will recognize when you hear. Phillips’ sultry vocal stylings fit so nicely with the group this fan hates to see her go.
If you dig Firewater, this collection of covers will add nicely to your enjoyment of the band’s unique style. The stripped-down approach they went back to with 2001’s Psychopharmacology carries nicely here into a new dimension, Tod A.’s bass finding a nice, dirty, driving home out on top of the rhythm mix, overdriven and a bit smarmy, just like the man’s voice. But if you have never heard this group, do yourself a favor, pick up Songs We Should Have Written and give it a couple of spins. Then, if intrigued, go back and buy The Ponzi Scheme. You’ll open your ears to a truly innovative band that keeps pulling aces from their sleeve the longer the game is on.
* (Author’s note: I begrudgingly use the phrase “indie rock” to denote the world of independent rock labels, i.e. Jetset, Touch and Go, Quarterstick, and so on, and not in the ’90s teeny-bopper marketing context the labels attempted to supplant into the mainstream by pushing groups like Weezer into the Nirvana/marketing-Christ position to spearhead the arrival of pointless bands like Tipping Daisy and, ah, well, whoever else has already gratefully been forgotten. End soapbox transmission.)