Initially described as a “wedding band gone wrong,” the brainchild of former Cop Shoot Cop leader Tod A. makes the smooth transition from anarchist-noise to klezmer soul sound all too easy. Modernizing and urbanizing the darkest of Hank Williams’ nightmares, Firewater clings to such themes as depression, excessive drinking and all around bad luck. The pure energy of this fantastic and wholly original live act is hard to translate onto CD, but they have valiantly tried.
Get Off the Cross arrived as the work of a ’90s supergroup of sorts: in addition to Tod A. singing and playing bass, guitar and bouzouki, the album features guitarist Duane Denison (Jesus Lizard, Denison/Kimball Trio), Soul Coughing drummer Yuval Gabay, Jim Kimball (Laughing Hyenas, Denison/Kimball Trio, Mule, Jesus Lizard), Hugo Largo violinist Hahn Rowe and former Ordinaires saxophonist Kurt Hoffman. The album is filled with Gypsy, Jewish and Middle Eastern tinges; “Balalaika” is accurately titled. Those searching out the great lost Cop Shoot Cop record will either be sorely disappointed or decide to take up the tarantella.
The Ponzi Scheme retains the dingy rust that is essentially the Firewater sound, but meanders closer to new wave than old world. At this point, the lineup of the band solidifies with Oren Kaplan (Gogol Bordello), Paul Wallfisch (Botanica) and drummer Tamir Muskat to the mix, adding authenticity to the gypsy-Israeli sound. (The two releases of The Ponzi Scheme have few sonic deviations, but “Green Light” is mono on the Jetset release (which, as it had for the first album, again released promo copies in a triangular sleeve) and stereo for Universal.
Psychopharmacology is a semi-narrative with cleaner, tighter sound than its predecessors. While the album was released weeks prior to 9/11, it contains the eerily prophetic “The Man With the Blurry Face,” with the line “It started out like a regular Tuesday…”
The Man on the Burning Tightrope is a return to form. Circus music, lounge and more hard rock joins the already dense mix of influences. The program includes great instrumentals (especially “Ponzi’s Revenge”) as well as a mysterious angry answering machine message. More of the songs on this album than any of the previous ones are unabashedly dance-friendly. It’s the closest Firewater can get to being and sounding happy without sarcasm.
The cover tunes on the compellingly original Songs We Should Have Written range all over the map, from the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” (with more punch and aggression than the original) to Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains.” Songs by Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Lee Hazlewood are also on the wish list.