Perfect Sound Forever

The Strange Case of Firewater

By Kurt Wildermuth
(July 2004)

New York City can be a freak show, and the local indie-rock band Firewater (; provides one possible soundtrack after another. You don't have to live in or love New York to call Firewater's polymorphous music home, but it probably helps. In this city, despite the corporate takeover of our cityscape, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like replacement of indigenous businesses with chain stores, you're still likely to encounter any number of different noises as you trek from place to place. Elevator to bodega to park, you're hearing fragments of activity, salsa and rap and hardcore, snatches of conversation in however many languages, demolition and construction, traffic. It's all music, it's all good, if you follow John Cage's advice and learn to love it, to appreciate each potential annoyance as part of a sound collage both public and entirely private. Displayed throughout this music, in the streets, in the subways, are the scarred and the misshapen, the wild-eyed and the stumbling, the biting and the barking, the hawking and the spitting. See the breathtakingly beautiful, and around the corner or two doors down you'll find the unutterably terrible. "This town," as leader, singer, bassist Tod A puts it on Firewater's latest CD, a covers collection called Songs We Should Have Written (2004), "is a make-you town / Or a shake-you-up-and-bring-you-down town."

An "anthem for anyone who has ever had a love/hate relationship with their hometown," as Tod A explains in his liner notes, "This Town" was written by the eccentric country-pop auteur Lee Hazlewood and "made famous by Frank Sinatra." You'd never deduce the song's history from Firewater's take, which rocks--bumps and grinds, really--like a run through the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" by Nick Cave fronting the Gun Club at their most raucous. Is that the sound of New York City? Well, sure, in the way this place absorbs the sources poured into it and later pours them back out, reconstituted.

Even those of us familiar with Firewater's four previous CD's, knowing the band's versatility and penchant for drawing on and drawing together diverse sounds, from psychedelic rock to sea chanteys to Latin jazz to ethnic folk musics, might not have predicted how much new life they'd uncover in a few of their favorite things. Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On," here a duet with Britta Phillips, bassist for the New York indie-rock band Luna (she also trades vocals with Tod A on a shimmering version of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's "Some Velvet Morning"), comes across not as a period piece but as a funhouse-mirror portrait of our times, with the lyrics updated: "The rich still keep it to themselves," "History repeats itself," "Everything still falls apart," "The rock star is a businessman today," and so on. Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" (a Leiber and Stoller dramatic monologue with chorus) becomes a sci-fi soapbox confession. The Stones' "Paint It Black," accented with mellotron, sitar, tabla, and sarangi, burns slowly and then ends in a rave-up, which fades out a minute and a half after you've hoped it'll rage on for another half hour. The track that from afar seems most redundant, Tom Waits's "Diamonds and Gold," succeeds because the band translates its long-obvious debt to Waits into true love for the song, Tod A crooning gruffly toward a vulnerability that the original left unexposed.

Someone named Asaf Roth plays the marimba and someone named Zef (no last name) plays the violin on this number, but the core band throughout Songs We Should Have Written consists of Tod A (real last name Ashley), Oren Kaplan on guitar, and Tamir Muskat on drums. Paul Wallfisch plays organ on four of the eleven cuts, plus piano on one of those four. These same guys, plus a slew of guests on everything from flugelhorn to answering machine, seemed to be having a lot less fun, in fact sounded downright miserable, on Firewater's previous recording, a vaguely Sgt. Pepper-esque, circus-themed cabinet of curiosities called The Man on the Burning Tightrope (2003).

"All over the world, winners are cheating, losers are weeping, they take anything at all," Tod A sings at the start, "All over the world, lovers are killing, suckers are willing to take anything at all," and the outlook grows even bleaker from there. Despite a snippet toward the end about "the song that saved my life tonight," the man of the title seems doomed to hit the fire or the floor, and the sometimes uninspired playing and songwriting reflect that outcome. At the CD's best, however, the band delightedly heralds some minor apocalypse, as when they turn frenzied wedding entertainers on "Dark Days Indeed" and "The Notorious & Legendary Dog & Pony Show."

Prominent on the CD booklet's "NO THANKS AT ALL" list are "the American Empire and their Idiot King," and The Man on the Burning Tightrope reflects that special hell-on-Earth feeling brought on by several years of George W. Bush's presidency. ("I see your White House / and I want to paint it black," goes one of Tod A's lyrical substitutions on Songs We Should Have Written.) By contrast, Firewater's Psychopharmacology (2001) seems prelapsarian, a reminder of what life was like before the Empire was hijacked. Here, the core group, including Wallfisch, rips like a really tight garage band through ten of Tod A's most melodic, eloquent, and memorable songs. Make no mistake, though—these catchy tunes don't provide easy listening: "I'm a raging success as a failure," announces the homeless man in the Pogues-like "7th Avenue Static." "And now the sun is shining / Somewhere the sun is shining / But it sure ain't shining on you now," explains the narrator of the gentle "Black Box Recording," in which your plane goes down as you dream "Of burning cities gleaming / Beneath a sky of ash and slate."

Though lines like that might suggest otherwise, Psychopharmacology was released before 9/11/01. At a Firewater show in NYC a few weeks after 9/11, a fellow fan disagreed strongly when I called this collection the band's best work. Opinions differ about Firewater. Opinions differ about everything, yes, but Firewater forces us to draw pistols at dawn. This one remains my favorite, but if you like your New York indie rock with its hooks sharp, its edges rough, its wires crossed, and its screws loose, you might want to dip further back into the Firewater catalog.

On their second CD, The Ponzi Scheme (1998), the band is in transition, with drummer George Javori on his way out and Muskat joining them for two tracks. Then-full-time members Hahn Rowe and Tim Otto play violin and saxophone respectively, while the guests include a whole bunch of people who were members or guest stars on the first CD, which I'm getting to, so hold on.

The sound of The Ponzi Scheme comes maybe midway between the exotic atmospherics of The Man on the Burning Tightrope and the more straightforward, even streamlined psychedelic-folk-punk-pop-rock of Psychopharmacology. The doom and gloom, the failure and betrayal, run thick, but no one salutes the bitter end as manically, even maniacally, as Firewater does. Consider "Another Perfect Catastrophe," perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the band's vision. Over a klezmer-tango backing with an irresistible bassline, ringing guitar, and honking sax, Tod A snarls:

Ain't nothing like it
When it's twisted and reeling
They'll put the boot right in your eye
Because when the floor turns into wall
And then the wall becomes the ceiling
Oh, what a lovely way to die

Another perfect catastrophe
Is just waiting to happen
Watching for the moment to transpire . . .

Take one small step back from that brink and you'll land on Firewater's debut, Get Off the Cross . . . We Need the Wood for the Fire (1995), whose first song, "Some Strange Reaction," lays the groundwork for all the bitterness and misanthropy to come through the years:

Must be some strange reaction of a chemical kind
When all your problems develop complications
Can't get to sleep when all the people on the street
Are just like insects crawling on a carcass

As I listen to some of the more lighthearted material on the latest CD--the ska instrumental "Storm Warning," Robyn Hitchcock's "I Often Dream of Trains," even Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," the band's first stab at "country" and a pedal-steel-and-organ-fueled celebration—I find it hard to put together the different incarnations of Firewater. The music has become effortlessly eclectic, but in this early stuff there's real fire from the friction of one style rubbing against another. Get Off the Cross can sound like an insurrection, then like a bundle of rocks as it's tossed from a New York skyscraper into some dark alley in Eastern Europe, then like that combination of accents you might dream up after eating curried goat, washing it down with cheap wine and a cheaper-beer chaser, and catching a double feature of a cult film and a thriller. Imagine Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), with its cast of deformed sideshow "performers," crossed with Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), which depicts a New York City subway hijacking and has a jazzy opening theme that just happens to sound like a Firewater instrumental.

At its roots, the band was a side project for its members, a kind of New York-based, indie-rock supergroup featuring Duane Denison (guitarist for the ferocious Jesus Lizard), Yuval Gabay (percussionist for the funky Soul Coughing), and Kurt Hoffman (saxophonist for the raunchy Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), with special guest appearances by Jennifer Charles (vocalist for the noirish Elysian Fields) and Jane Scarpantoni (cellist on more cool recordings than I could possibly list here). The combination sounds like none of these players' main projects.

Tod A, meanwhile, had achieved a degree of mainstream success with Cop Shoot Cop, who recorded for a major label and whose "$10 Bill"--a hook-laden fusion of New Orleans march and industrial noise--you might have heard on "alternative" radio in the heady days after Nirvana opened up that market. He could have been a rock star. Of course, the rock star is a businessman today. "So I gave up the gravy," as he puts it on The Ponzi Scheme's "So Long, Superman," "for sweet obscurity." To which I say: Amen, brother, and thanks.

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